Students take protest to steps of School District and City Hall

After the National School Walkout to stop gun violence, youth seize the opportunity to make their voices heard on violence close to home.

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

Greg Windle
Several hundred students gathered on the steps of the School District’s headquarters late Wednesday morning after the National School Walkout against gun violence to continue demonstrating for school and neighborhood safety and gun control.

Organizers from the Philadelphia Student Union estimated the size of the crowd at 1,500. Despite a lack of official support from the District and warnings of disciplinary action from some teachers and administrators, students left their schools to seize the moment when they were at the center of a national dialogue about gun violence.

“I’m willing to take any consequences that come my way,” said Nyla Brooks, a student at Parkway Center City and a member of Philadelphia Student Union, which, along with JUNTOS, organized the march. “My dad was shot and killed when I was younger. This is for him.”

Brooks and about 20 of her classmates were the first to arrive at District headquarters during the National School Walkout. That event, held one month after 17 people were killed in a Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, was to honor those victims and to advocate for gun control.

But after the 17-minute walkout — one minute for each victim — Brooks and her group did not return to school, instead staying at District headquarters to join the Student Vision on School Safety March and rally.

A lone Parkway teacher, who declined to be identified, urged the students to return to class. Soon the Parkway group was joined by 50 students from Franklin Learning Center.

Eventually, the Parkway teacher left. The District’s guidance was that students who stayed past the 17 minutes to participate in the rally and didn’t return to school afterward would be marked absent, but not disciplined.

Soon after, hundreds of students from Central High, Girls’ High, Masterman, Palumbo, South Philly, and more showed up, flooding the District steps with signs in hand, demanding that their voices be heard.

“We cannot sit here and wait for them to realize that our lives matter,” said Nickey Sawbo, a student at Franklin Learning Center. “All of us are standing out here to tell them that we need protection, we need change.”

“The adults have failed the students,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes. “The adults in legislative power have failed the students. … The schools are crumbling, and the evidence of all of that is the violence that is going on. So, I have to stand with the students because they’re right.”

Over an hour later, the mass of students filed onto the southbound side of Broad Street and marched to City Hall. En route they shouted protest chants and cheered at northbound drivers honking their horns in support. One truck driver even drew high-fives from a group of students.

“People usually call us lazy and say we don’t want to do anything with ourselves,” said Seairra Santiago, a senior at the High School for Creative & Performing Arts. “But we’re taking a stance to raise awareness to the fact that people are being shot for the wrong reasons and that we need to make a change for us students, because we’re trying to learn, not be killed.”

At City Hall, student union and JUNTOS members addressed the crowd with their list of demands for the School District, which focused on school safety, especially for black and brown students.

Other demands include 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.)

Asked about the group’s demands, particularly the call to eliminate school police and hire more school counselors, spokesman Lee Whack said the District had received no formal communication from the student group and could not address the issues.

The organizers were joined by City Councilwoman Helen Gym, State Rep. Vincent Hughes, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Kendra Brooks, a parent advocate with Parents United for Public Education.

“The adults have failed the students,” said Hughes. “The adults in legislative power have failed the students. We’re not funding the schools the way we need to fund them. We don’t have the counselors. We don’t have the support. The schools are crumbling and the evidence of all of that is the violence that is going on. So, I have to stand with the students because they’re right.”

Greg Windle