A Teacher’s Story

Veteran Philadelphia teacher Frank Burd tells his own story about the violence that plagues Philly’s schools, the incredible support he received from the community, and his ongoing fight to recover

Without fail, everyone asked me about the kids who attacked me. When it came to James Footman, I could answer very little. He hadn’t yet turned 15. When I saw him in court that April, I couldn’t believe that this kid, this little kid with an almost cherubic face, could have done as much damage as he did. But then I was reminded that though he was young, I was 60. I was pushed from the back, then the side. I never had a chance. Footman probably has a grandfather younger than me.

I knew Donte a little better. He had been transferred into my class about three months earlier. He came with seven or eight kids, from a class that was being folded into mine. This is one of the horrors of teaching in Philadelphia: numbers.

The contract says 33 per class. First of all, 33 kids in a school like Germantown is just too many. The skill levels are so diverse that a teacher can’t hope to get 33 kids through an Algebra 2 syllabus. Many of these kids have been promoted only because of the numbers game: A teacher looks bad if he fails too many; a principal looks bad if too few kids graduate.

But that’s just the tip of the numbers problem. With the movement in and out of Germantown and different classes, I probably see 60 to 70 kids in any given class during the course of the school year. So even if you get the class rolling, and have some success, the numbers people will disrupt the chemistry by messing with the number.

When Donte arrived, he took a seat near the front. Most of the other kids went to the back of the classroom. It was clear to me that he was smart. He knew some math. He even did homework on occasion. Unlike other kids, he usually liked going to the board to work on a problem.

But Donte was also rather immature. He clearly hadn’t discovered who he was and how he fit. Sometimes, he’d put on a big front of toughness, only to follow it by saying, “I was just playin’ with you.”

That Friday, he came in late. He often came in late. But instead of going to his usual seat, he took a seat in the back of the room. And then, the events that led to the assault began.

Music was playing in the room. “Where’s that coming from?” I asked. Two kids in the class pointed to the back, where Donte sat slouched in his chair with earphones.

At first he didn’t hear me when I told him to turn it down. When he did, he turned it down, then up again. I had to figure out if this was a real confrontation or just Donte playing one of his games. In the end, after first telling him to turn it down, then telling him to turn it off, I said, “Donte, if you don’t turn it off, I’m going to have to take it away from you.”

A voice in the classroom said, “Donte, give it to him. He’ll give it back to you at the end of the period.” My kids knew me. And after a couple of comments, he took the headphones off and pushed the set toward me. I was relieved. I picked it up — and that’s all I remember.

Donte was 17 years old at the time. I think he was just months away from his 18th birthday. He had applied to college and, I learned later, was accepted. But his life was also radically changed by what he put into motion — a process that landed me in the hospital and him in a lockup.

During my 17-day stay at MossRehab, I started to become aware of the legal goings-on. While it seemed that James Footman was planning to plead guilty, Donte’s lawyer had sought to have his client tried separately. His argument was that Footman had done the damage that put me in the hospital, and he didn’t want Donte connected to that. I’m sure neither the lawyer nor Donte lost sight of the fact that Footman never would have entered the picture if Donte hadn’t started things with a shove. Oh, and Donte’s attorney wanted his client tried as a juvenile.

I was asked by many of my visitors how I felt about that. The truth is that I wanted the legal system to take care of it. I had two voices talking in my head. One was the strict, conservative one, hoping that the judge would lock both of my assailants up. I was so angry. I was so hurt. But I’m not ashamed to admit there is a huge liberal in me who wants to fix things, and who realized that these were just kids, and that they had lives in front of them. I needed an impartial judge who understood kids and also understood the law. I needed a person with compassion and fortitude. The truth is, I needed someone on the bench who was just like I was in the classroom.

Many people were appalled by the decision to try Donte as a minor. Ironically, it didn’t bother me as much as it would have if a friend or family member had been the victim.