Philadelphia students discuss ‘never ending’ gun violence with school, state leaders

Students talk about gun violence and mental health during a roundtable discussion at the Philadelphia School District building on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023 in Philadelphia, Penn.
Students discuss gun violence and its impact on their mental health during an event attended by state Attorney General Michelle Henry and others in Philadelphia on Aug. 4. (Carly Sitrin / Chalkbeat)

Samaya McArthur is about to start her freshman year at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush High School in Northeast Philadelphia and she’s concerned about the gun violence plaguing her city. But she isn’t sure adults can fix it.

“Some things just can’t be solved,” McArthur said. “No matter how hard you try to fix something that’s so constant, it’s never ending.” 

McArthur and 21 of her peers shared their thoughts and concerns about gun violence and youth mental health with the state Attorney General Michelle Henry, Superintendent Tony Watlington, and members of the school board at a roundtable event at the district offices on Friday.

“You just never know when somebody is going to pull [a gun] out,” McArthur said in an interview after the event.

Gun violence has become an inextricable and devastating part of Philadelphia students’ lives, even though law enforcement officials have said shootings in the city have declined this year compared to the same period last year. During the 2022-23 school year, 199 students were shot in Philadelphia and 33 of those shootings were fatal, district spokesperson Marissa Orbanek said.

Henry told reporters on Friday her office has “seen shootings throughout the state that involve very young individuals who shouldn’t have access to guns,” and that the number of young people with access to firearms is rising.

Destini McCode, a 12th grader at Philadelphia High School for Girls in North Philadelphia, said officials “can put things in place to try and prevent” shootings, “but at the end of the day, you have to worry about your safety.” 

And amid the fear children have about gun violence in the city, she said carrying a gun as a young person may offer them some protection.

Even if you keep your distance from people who you know have access to firearms, McCode said, someone “can get mad at you and try and pull something on you.”

That can lead to a tragic cycle, McArthur said. 

“The family member of someone who got shot might want to take revenge on that person,” McArthur said.

Both students said they’d like to see more gun safety laws and stricter ones. They also recommended putting more security staff or other caring adults around schools to ensure students’ safety.

According to Watlington’s five-year strategic plan for the district, “students, school staff, families, and community members shared that the District has insufficient staff to meet students’ mental health and social-emotional needs, particularly in the midst of Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic.”

“Schools need more trauma-informed approaches, more counselors, and more caring adults to listen and understand students’ experiences,” the strategic plan also says.

Friday’s event was part of an ongoing series of roundtables Henry’s office is hosting to hear from young people across the state about their experiences with gun violence and how it has impacted their mental health.

Henry said her intention in convening the roundtables is to “hear firsthand from students and teens about how it’s impacting them” and to learn from them as well. She said her office intends to publish a report with policy recommendations based on what they hear at this event and the others to come.

Henry pointed to her office’s “very aggressive” enforcement of straw purchase laws and illegal ghost guns as evidence that they are taking the issue seriously. But more could be done, Henry said.

“I think we need stronger gun laws. And I also think we need to aggressively enforce the ones we have,” Henry said.

The Republican-controlled state Senate has declined to advance several gun safety bills in recent months, including one measure that would enact so-called “red flag” laws to allow law enforcement to seize firearms from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others.

In late July, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced that the city filed a lawsuit against multiple gun vendors — including two in Northeast Philadelphia — alleging they “recklessly and repeatedly engaged in straw purchasing transactions, consequently fueling gun violence in Philadelphia.” 

So-called “straw purchasing” occurs when someone buys firearms with the “intention of illegally transferring them to someone else or supplying the criminal gun market,” according to a statement from Kenney’s office about the lawsuit.

As officials try to come up with new policies and laws to prevent shootings, McCode said, lawmakers and those in power should do whatever they can to ensure this next school year is less deadly than the last.

“Adults are going to do what they want to do, but kids — you can protect them,” McCode said.

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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