Inside One of the Country's Most Dangerous Schools, There Are Fights, Threats and Hope

Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia reports dozens of incidents.

ByABC News
May 15, 2013, 7:13 PM

May 30, 2013 — -- School police officers at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia begin every morning with a prayer.

"We must save the children," one of them said, head bowed.

The officers then take their posts to watch for razor blades in tin foil, knives in backpacks and Vaseline on students' faces, which is used to prevent scratches during fights. As the students enter the building, they have to file through metal detectors, some even emptying their pockets before being cleared to go to class.

"This is a dangerous school," said 15-year-old Julissa. "A lot of fights pop off over nothing, so you got to be safe."

Strawberry Mansion High, where 94 security cameras line the halls, had 435 students at the beginning of this school year. Located in a poor neighborhood with a high crime rate, Strawberry Mansion has been on the state of Pennsylvania's "Persistently Dangerous Schools" list for the past five years.

ABC News' Diane Sawyer and ABC News producers followed the daily lives of the school's students and faculty during the 2012-2013 school year. So far this school year, there have been 49 incidents from fires to teacher attacks reported in or near the school. ABC News' cameras captured students brawling in the cafeteria and being bullied, as well as students who shared their dreams of going to college.

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Last year, Strawberry Mansion was among 37 Philadelphia schools that were scheduled to close this June. The city is in the midst of fighting an education budget crisis.

The current principal is Linda Cliatt-Wayman -- the fourth the high school has had in four years. Before coming to Strawberry Mansion, she was an assistant superintendent of high schools for the Philadelphia public school system. Since she started last fall, the number of incidents has been cut in half.

"I could not find a principal who was suitable to handle this school," Cliatt-Wayman said. "Therefore, I said to myself, because I love these students dearly and I knew the community ... I would just volunteer to be the principal."

Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite said finding strong leadership for Strawberry Mansion has been the "primary factor" in starting the school's turnaround.

"The type of persona, if you will, who establishes a clear vision for what appropriate behavior looks like, for what rigorous instruction looks like, for expectations, that students are exposed to opportunities," Hite said. "If turnaround can happen here, at Strawberry Mansion, it can happen anywhere in the country."

In her effort to protect the student body, Cliatt-Wayman banned boots, which can be used to stomp on heads, and hoodies so students can't hide from security cameras.

"Each day, it gets scarier," Cliatt-Wayman said. "[The student] just said to me, 'I have a bullet with your name on it.' That's what it was. And I know that guns are really accessible in this neighborhood, so I don't think it's unreasonable that he can get his hand on a gun and shoot me."

READ: A Strawberry Mansion Teacher's Perspective

But for every student that causes trouble, there are many more who just want to learn. Razzaq, a freshman at Strawberry Mansion, shows up to school even though he shoulders much of the responsibility at home.

Razzaq's favorite subjects at school are chemistry and algebra, and his pride and joy is his Junior ROTC uniform.

When it comes to protecting himself at school, he said, he tries to avoid trouble.

"I use my words," he said. "I don't try to be big. I don't try to be anything."

Another freshman, a small, quiet girl named Malaysia, is also trying hard to make it at Strawberry Mansion.

On parent-teacher conference day, her father came to talk with her algebra teacher. Of the teacher's 70 students, Malaysia's father was the only parent to show up.

"I can't see not wanting to know about your child," said her father, Roosevelt Paramour. "I can't see not wanting to know about their progress and what they are doing."

How to Help: Strawberry Mansion High School