A Philadelphia School's Big Bet on Nonviolence

In a desperately poor, dangerous part of town, Memphis Street Academy decided to ditch its metal detectors and focus on supporting students. Violence dropped by 90 percent.
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A view of a street in the Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia in 1998. John Paul Jones Middle School, now Memphis Street Academy, draws students from a desperately poor and dangerous section of the city. (Dan Loh/AP)

Last year when American Paradigm Schools took over Philadelphia's infamous, failing John Paul Jones Middle School, they did something a lot of people would find inconceivable. The school was known as "Jones Jail" for its reputation of violence and disorder, and because the building physically resembled a youth correctional facility. Situated in the Kensington section of the city, it drew students from the heart of a desperately poor hub of injection drug users and street level prostitution where gun violence rates are off the charts. But rather than beef up the already heavy security to ensure safety and restore order, American Paradigm stripped it away. During renovations, they removed the metal detectors and barred windows.

The police predicted chaos. But instead, new numbers seem to show that in a single year, the number of serious incidents fell by 90%.

The school says it wasn't just the humanizing physical makeover of the facility that helped. Memphis Street Academy also credits the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a noncoercive, nonviolent conflict resolution regimen originally used in prison settings that was later adapted to violent schools. AVP, when tailored to school settings, emphasizes student empowerment, relationship building and anger management over institutional control and surveillance. There are no aggressive security guards in schools using the AVP model; instead they have engagement coaches, who provide support, encouragement, and a sense of safety.

The size and immediacy of the drop will strike some as suspect, but Memphis Street Academy stands by accuracy of their numbers, saying that they are required by law to report the same types of incidents any other school must report. Nothing about the reporting process or the kinds of incidents that must be reported was changed. And while many charter schools are criticized for "creaming," i.e. taking only the best students and transferring those with behavior problems or disabilities to other struggling public schools, the Memphis Street Academy and the Alternatives to Violence Project insist that wasn't the case, here. The conditions of their charter required them to pick up exactly where John Paul Jones left off.

Carolyn Schodt, a registered nurse at Alternatives to Violence who also runs AVP inside Graterford State Prison, says, "We did this with the same students, same parents, same poverty. In one school year serious incidents - drug sales, weapons, assaults, rapes - went from 138 to 15.

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Fifth grade certainly isn't too early for school-based violence intervention programming in North Philadelphia. Memphis Street Academy kids grow up quick. Many students have parents struggling with addiction and older siblings in the drug game who are already either dead or in jail. The reality of life in their community can be harsh; teachers say students coming to school in the morning witness prostitutes on Kensington Avenue tricking to get their wake-up dope shots. On the way home in the afternoon, after the extensive network of drug corners operating in the neighborhood are up and humming, they might have to dodge bullets. Students have brought dirty syringes and discarded guns they found on the street to class. By middle school many of them have witnessed more violence than most Americans who didn't serve in a war ever will.

Previously listed as one of Pennsylvania's persistently dangerous schools, John Paul Jones was known as an unruly place where fights were the norm and street violence from the surrounding neighborhood occasionally spilled onto school property. This despite the fact that security measures at the time--the ones the school got rid of while rebranding to Memphis Street Academy--were extreme.

"Every day ," says CEO of American Paradigm Schools Stacey Cruise, "they would set up a perimeter of police officers on the blocks around the school, and those police were there to protect neighbors from the children, not to protect the children from the neighborhood." Before school let out the block would clear, neighbors coming in off their porches and fearfully shutting their doors. Nearby bodegas would temporarily close shop. When the bell rung, 800 rambunctious children would stream out the building's front doors, climbing over vehicles parked in front of the school in the rush to get away.

School police officers patrolled the building at John Paul Jones, and children were routinely submitted to scans with metal detecting wands. All the windows were covered in metal grating and one room that held computers even had thick iron prison bars on its exterior.

In taking the hugely risky leap to a noncoercive, nonviolence based safety system at Memphis Street Academy, American Paradigm says convincing community stakeholders that these prison-like implements of the security state needed to be discarded wasn't easy.

"The police department told us flat out, 'You're foolish, and you'll regret it,'" says Jerry Santilli, American Paradigm's co-founder. He says that the police department lobbied so hard the school was ultimately convinced not to remove all the window gratings, leaving the rear of the school still enmeshed in metal because the officers informed them of a network of drug houses operating directly across the street.

The school took the grates down from the building façade in an elaborate ceremony, inviting news crews to film a cherry picker crane lifting them off the building. Police brass showed up wearing Kevlar vests, a school administrator said, to make their feelings about the neighborhood clear.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker and writer based in Philadelphia. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, and he is columnist at The Fix

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