‘There is a war going on in these streets’: Philly principals call for help addressing the effect of gun violence on schools

Robin Cooper, president of the Philadelphia union that represents school principals, speaks at rally Wednesday demanding more help in dealing with gun violence. (Dale Mezzacappa | Chalkbeat)

A group of Philadelphia public school principals rallied at their union headquarters Wednesday, saying they need more support to address gun violence and its effect on their schools. 

About 10 principals, joined by Councilmember Helen Gym and religious and community leaders, said they need additional staff members assigned to schools for safety and mental health support. They noted that existing vacancies, including teachers, are crippling their ability to operate orderly buildings.

“There is a war going on in these streets,” said Shavonne McMillan, principal of Vaux Big Picture High School in North Philadelphia. “I’m speaking for the educators who are experiencing what no educator should have to experience,” she said, calling increasing incidents of gun violence “a citywide pandemic,” adding, “I want to keep all of my staff and students safe and return home safely.”  

She called on shooters “to honor a code” and keep schools as “safe havens.” 

Since school started on Aug. 31, 29 people under 18 have been victims of gunfire, and four of the incidents occurred near school buildings. Of the 429 Philadelphia homicides since Jan. 1, 135 of the victims have been under 18, according to the city data.

Some schools affected by the violence, such as Martin Luther King High School, have searched for ways to help students, including through weekly grief counseling. King principal Keisha Wilkins was among those who spoke, telling attendees that 30 students have been killed or injured in gun violence in her seven years at the school. 

“Our schools are not doing well,” said Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, Teamsters Local 502, or CASA, which represents school principals and other school officials, including climate managers. “We cannot get to the teaching and learning until we are sure that every last student feels safe, not only in school but coming and going through that safe corridor.” 

Cooper noted that 15 years ago, the death of a 10-year-old named Faheem Thomas, who was caught in the crossfire of a gun battle on his way to school, sparked community outrage. Today, she said, the city has become accustomed to such incidents.  “We have to get back to the same uproar,” she said.

Gym said the situation today represents a crisis beyond anything the city has seen before.

“We are here demanding a coordinated strategy for our schools and for our young people in addressing violence that has been impacting so many of our families,” Gym said.

Gym and others said the strategy needs to go beyond policing to include more robust community services, including mental health and trauma counseling, and meaningful activities for young people to participate in outside of school. 

Principals plan to speak out every single week “until schools get what they need,” Cooper said. 

They also called on parents to keep a closer eye on their children and pleaded for help for young people who feel they must resort to violence to settle their disputes. 

At an earlier city press briefing on gun violence, Deputy Police Commissioner Joel Dales, who is in charge of patrol operations, said that the police department has had 25 safe corridors that encompass 35 schools in place since the beginning of the school year. 

These corridors generally rely not just on policing but also on community volunteers to walk the areas around schools during arrival and dismissal times. This year, he said, the department has had trouble finding volunteers.

Dales said he would meet with school district officials Thursday and that a larger police presence would be put in place on Monday. “We’ll have more information next week with where we are going with the program,” Dales said.

Gym said that there needs to be more coordination among the city, school district, and community organizations for safe corridors and other initiatives. The city should pay trusted community members to walk the streets at school arrival and dismissal times, rather than relying on volunteers, she said.

Gym said that the city should concentrate its efforts around the 25 schools that have seen the most student deaths due to gun violence in the past several years and the 57 blocks and 10 ZIP codes with the most gun violence. The city has concentrated efforts in several “pinpoint” zones that roughly correlate to these locations, but Gym said adequate coordination is lacking. 

After the press conference, the school district issued a statement saying it “continues to be outraged by the increasing gun violence in our city and its very real impact on our students and communities.”  

The statement said that district officials have been “working very closely” with the police department and the city managing director’s office and earlier this month “started conversations about the implementation of School Safety Zones which will allow for enhanced police deployment during dismissal near selected school communities to monitor for illegal, harmful or violent activity.” 

Principals said they felt they had to act after a shooting Monday outside Lincoln High School in which a stray bullet killed a man who was driving by and a 16-year-old boy was critically wounded. Two nearby plainclothes officers arrested a suspect, Aaron K. Scott, who is now in custody. Police said Scott has a younger brother who is or had been a Lincoln student who had an ongoing dispute with students involved in the after-school confrontation.

Two other schools, Austin Meehan Middle School and Propel Academy, a K-8 school that opened this year, were briefly put on lockdown during the shooting. 

On Oct. 8, a 13-year-old boy was fatally shot while sitting in a car in the 3100 block of Judson Street, near Rhodes Elementary School, where he was a student. 

The principals are asking the city for better communication around its violence prevention strategies and police deployment, as well as for more resources from Community Behavioral Health in and around schools, including mobile crisis units.

From the state, they want more resources for career and college readiness and after-school programs. The district was recently awarded a $225,000 state grant for this purpose, but the money has not yet been received.

In August, CASA asked for five additional positions per school to deal with trauma issues brought on by the pandemic. Those positions included a climate manager, more school safety officers, and a special education liaison. 

Instead, the district allotted one additional position to most schools, with a few bigger and needier schools getting two. And all schools were told that principals could use their discretionary funds to pay for additional positions they felt were vital, a position some said forced them to choose among competing needs.

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