Two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer completed one of the most compelling series I’ve seen in print in the last 10 years. That series, “Assault on Learning” was a seven-part epic – the result of a year-long investigation of violence in the Philadelphia Public School system.

Besides my admiration of the amount of work that went into the series, I was struck by the size of the problem of endemic violence in schools. The details of violent acts, the snapshots of real people – real children – as both victims and perpetrators of violence were absolutely breathtaking.

Tales of trauma included kindergartners attacking their teachers, troubled middle schoolers threatening their teachers with scissors and teens mercilessly bullied and beaten right out of the system. Teachers are injured or threatened and leave the district or the entire profession.

The findings of the study were many: Violence in public schools is wide-spread, runs through nearly all age groups and classes, makes learning incredibly difficult for the majority of non-violent students and makes the job of Philadelphia Public School teachers very difficult. And the cause of violence is difficult to pinpoint. A vast mix of social problems, institutional malaise and lack of resources all perpetuate the problem.

Anyone who read the series must be left wondering about the viability of our public school system. And the portrait is not entirely fair. A majority of student and teachers in our schools are there for the right reason. Yet, it seems, we are asking these people to learn in an atmosphere that has a lot more in common with a prison than a school.

We need public schools. And we need them to work, particularly for children in parts of the city where too many are denied opportunity. Yet, until we can find a way to control the violence in pubic schools, our public schools will not be able to provide the safe place of learning we owe these students.

What can we do as a culture to make that happen? It’s tough to say, but we do know that we need to start doing something different. We need to recognize public schools problems and prioritize finding solutions for those problems. The best teachers need incentives to work in those schools and the resources must be found – whether monetary or in reallocation of staff – to handle the serious burden special education students have placed on public schools.

We can’t continue to let our public schools continue this way. To do so is an incredible abdication of responsibility to many children who deserve better. It may be a tall task, but it is an essential one. We cannot afford to allow generations of kids in inner city public schools to go without this basic right to a free, quality public education.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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