‘Students are petrified’ to go to school amid rising Philly gun violence

Students and faculty talk around a large conference table, all wearing protective masks.
An unidentified student talks of his experience with gun violence in Philadelphia inside the school at the Juvenile Justice Services Center. (Kriston Jae Bethel for Chalkbeat)

Philadelphia schools can’t ignore rising gun violence if they want to reverse the trend, students said during a Wednesday panel discussion sponsored by Chalkbeat Philadelphia. That means creating safe spaces for students to express their fears and acknowledging that gun violence affects everyone.

“Once you experience gun violence in your family, in any group that you’re in, you go back to school, school should be a community,” said Erin Gill-Wilson, a junior at George Washington Carver Engineering and Science High School. 

Instead of “jumping back into schoolwork,” students — and teachers— need support and time to talk about the experience, she said. 

More than 100 people attended the virtual panel organized with Resolve Philly, where students, educators, and Philadelphia’s outgoing schools superintendent discussed the epidemic of violence in the city and its impact on student mental health.

The numbers are staggering. There have been 145 homicides so far this year, up 6% from the same time last year, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. Teenagers and children make up a growing number of gun violence victims and perpetrators, a problem city and school officials have been struggling to address. This year, 96 fatal and nonfatal shooting victims were between the ages 13-19 and 12 homicide victims were young people under 18.

“Gun violence isn’t just a school issue,” said Armando Ortez, a senior at Northeast High School and a student representative on the Philadelphia Board of Education. “It’s a community issue.” 

“Students are petrified to go to school or come back to school” for fear of encountering gun violence, Ortez said. 

“People don’t just carry guns around to look cool,” Gill-Wilson said. “It’s a level of protection. There are people who don’t even want to go to certain events or certain places if they can’t have a weapon. They don’t feel protected.”

Ignoring the problem is the wrong way to go, said Gill-Wilson. “I understand that as a teacher, faculty or staff, you may not want to open up or create some uncomfortable conversations,” but “uncomfortable conversations have to happen,” she said. “Gun violence and losing someone is uncomfortable.”

Resources for students dealing with trauma exist, but are often hard to come by, especially on short notice, said Lisa Christian, director of counseling services at the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia.

“There are very few resources I know of in this city that do not have a waitlist at this time,” she said. “That’s an issue.”

Mental health programs are “saturated” because of the gun violence epidemic, Christian said. She encourages people with health insurance to reach out to their insurer’s customer service department and “let them know you need trauma therapy, or you want to speak to a trauma therapist,” she said. “That will sometimes get you services a lot quicker.”

Christian’s organization provides counseling for a range of trauma-specific issues, but most are related to guns, she said, adding that “we need to have community-based intervention” through recreation centers and libraries. 

School and city officials are trying to address the needs, said Kevin Bethel, chief of safety for Philadelphia schools. 

“There’s a collective, all-hands approach,” he said. “This is not normal. What our kids are being exposed to, what our leadership is being exposed to, is not normal. We have allowed this to get normalized in our space. That is not acceptable.”

“We have to start teaching our young people how to deal with conflict,” he said, noting that a  “plethora of programs” are aimed at supporting and mentoring young people.

“At the end of the day, we have to start working upstream” rather than just addressing incidents, he said.

Creating programs isn’t enough, said Gill-Wilson. “There also needs to be an explanation of why the programs are needed,” she said. “How will one of my peers know I need to be in this program?” 

Students can benefit from having teachers and school officials who look like them and know what it’s like to grow up around gun violence, said Selina Carrera, who teaches and mentors at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center School. 

“I’m one of two Latinos” on the faculty there, she said, adding: “I could name maybe, on one hand, the number of teachers of color or from the community.” 

“You can’t fix a problem you don’t see,” Carrera said. “We need more support in humanizing these experiences. It’s so uncomfortable, teachers will just try to avoid it.” 

It’s important to give students “space” to deal with trauma, as well as mentors they can call on if they want to talk, she said. 

Carrera, who uses music and other creative arts to help students to tell their stories, suggested dedicating one day a week to mental health and how to deal with these conflicts.

“If we’re too busy policing our kids instead of listening to our kids, then they’re not going to be open to opening up,” she said, “and they’re not going to be willing to speak the truth.” 

At Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter, a program called Rebound works with the most vulnerable students to give them access to mentors and therapy and offers after-school enrichment programs that feature trips to plays and excursions to places such as New York and Washington. 

“So many students have not left their neighborhoods or their communities,” said Gratz Principal Le’Yondo Dunn. Rebound currently supports 50 students, and while the goal is to expand the program, that takes resources, he said. 

“We can’t assign 50, 60, 100 young people to one adult,” he said.

There needs to be more acknowledgment of “how far-reaching the impacts of gun violence are,” said Dunn, the Gratz principal, who noted that his school “impacted disproportionally,” but the effects don’t stop there. 

“My students have cousins and friends who attend other schools,” he said. “It’s impacting everyone who lives in the city, so we need to work together collaboratively.”

“Black and brown students are often viewed as a monolith, that they have the same experiences, the same aspirations,” Dunn said. 

He said he sees young people growing up amid food insecurity, in historically overlooked communities, without knowing how to process the information they’re taking in. “I believe the system is incredibly overworked,” with calls to 911 going unanswered and no guidance on how to respond to incidents. 

“If I could wave a magic wand, I would delete Facebook, Instagram, TikTok,” Dunn said. “There’s so much conflict bubbling up in those spaces, and those spaces are unmonitored.”

But social media can be a way of reaching at-risk youth, argued Christian. 

“We demonize social media, but we know the majority of your youth are on social media,” she said. “Social media’s not going anywhere. Let’s use it to our advantage.”

While the Rebound program is “amazing,” it’s not everywhere, said Gill-Wilson. She started her own nonprofit, Mentally E.A.T., to advocate for mental health, and called it  “a shame” that she didn’t find any existing resources. 

“We all need to know about different colleges, different ways of living,” Gill-Wilson said. “There’s more to life than just Philadelphia.”

It’s heartbreaking to her that most of her peers don’t know where certain colleges are or what opportunities are available to them. 

“We need to be told this,” she said. “We’re losing our friends, we’re losing our families, and we’re going back to school acting like it’s normal.”

William Hite, the outgoing schools superintendent, said at the event that more needs to be done. 

“We need to be willing to learn how to have difficult conversations around what young people are experiencing and showing they are heard and showing we are responsive, that we’re humanizing these issues,” he said. “We want to expand what we’re doing around mentoring,” but “these things take resources.”

This article is part of The Toll: The Roots and Costs of Gun Violence in Philadelphia, a solutions-focused series from the collaborative reporting project Broke in Philly. Find other stories here and follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.

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