Philadelphia students to lead a march for school safety after national walkout

Students say they feel that 17 minutes isn't enough to explore the issues surrounding persistent urban gun violence.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This story has been updated. The 17-minute national school walkout is about more than the massacre that took place in Parkland, Florida, high school a month ago, according to the walkout’s organizers in Philadelphia.

It is also about the systemic forms of gun violence that disproportionately impact teens in black and brown communities, and “police brutality and militarized policing,” including the presence of police in schools.

Students throughout the District will participate in the national walkout, but some feel 17 minutes aren’t enough to address gun violence and safety in urban schools. So after the national demonstration, the Philadelphia Student Union and JUNTOS are planning to continue to bring attention to the issue with the Student Vision for School Safety March.

Other participants in the march include Tuff Girls, Get HYPE Philly, Vietlead, Asian Americans United, Parents United, the Caucus of Working Educators, Black Lives Matter Philly, the Office of Councilwoman Helen Gym, and State Rep. Vincent Hughes.

“If there’s going to be conversations had around what school safety should look like, that conversation requires the inclusion of our vision,” said student union member Camryn Cobia, a Central High student.

The school safety march will begin at District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. at 11:30 a.m. – an hour and a half after the national walkout – and will end at City Hall at 1:30 p.m.

March leaders released a list of demands on Tuesday that included divestment from school police officers, comprehensive mental health and and emotional health services, more guidance counselors and social workers, expansion of restorative justice practices, protection for students and families from arrests around schools by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and gun control that does not result in the targeted policing of black and brown bodies. (Click here to see the full list of demands.)

In letters to both principals and families, Superintendent William Hite made it clear that students are expected to return to school after the 17-minute national walkout and that the day is to proceed as scheduled.

“If schools want to do more than 17 minutes, we are supportive of that as well,” said District spokesman Lee Whack, adding that Central High School plans an hour-long program on its lawn.

Whack said that although the District is “aware of the plan for the march,” it is not in favor of students leaving to participate in a non-school event.

“The reality is that we sent out guidance; we as a school district are responsible for the safety of students during the school day,” Whack said. “We are supporting them to take action and speak up for student safety, we’re in agreement with that, but for us it makes sense for it to take place on school grounds. Once they are leaving school grounds, and coming back or not, this is not a school district event, and a lot of risks accompany that. That’s not a step we are taking.”

He said that students would be marked absent if they did not return to school, but no disciplinary action is planned.

Julien Terrell, executive director of the student union, said the District is missing out on a chance to uplift student voices looking to make a difference. He said, “This is a genuine opportunity for the District to support students who want to stand in solidarity and exercise their right to protest.”