Roxborough High remembers Nicolas Elizalde, killed one year ago

An outdoor shot of several people bending over to plant flowers in a grassy area
Students and Roxborough High principal Kristin Williams-Smalley plant crocuses on the lawn outside the school in memory of Nicolas Elizalde, killed one year ago on Sept. 27. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

On a strip of ragged grass adjoining the front steps of Roxborough High School, students planted crocuses. 

The bulbs, assistant principal Julian Saavedra explained to them, are perennials, meaning they die out but come back every year, bursting out in vibrant colors on patches of ground still waking up from the cold of winter. 

The planting happened Wednesday, on the first anniversary of one of the most devastating events in the history of Roxborough High: a brutal shooting mere steps from the school that took the life of 14-year-old Nicolas Elizalde as he walked home from a football scrimmage at the field nearby.

Nicolas was actually a student at nearby Saul High School of Agricultural Science, which shares a football team with Roxborough.

To cope and remember, the 600-student school observed a Day of Peace on the anniversary, seeking to bring additional support to a community that is still traumatized. To start the day, students held a moment of silence. Over the past year, they helped paint a mural on the wall of the school closest to where the shooting occurred. The mural depicts, among other symbols, a football helmet filled with flowers and a large rendering of Nicolas’ jersey number, 62.

“We’re getting through it as a team,” said assistant football coach Marc Skinner. “We stand by each other, we talk to each other. … We put our focus on the field and the game and making sure we do the right thing, and not be a part of any situation that would have us in this type of tragedy again.” 

Since the incident, Roxborough has partnered with organizations including Healing Hurt People to work with students and others affected. Police in the 14th District have stepped up patrols. The school has more security guards and many programs addressing students’ emotional needs. 

But the pain is still raw. 

“We continue to support our children with trauma-informed best practices. We share resources with our teachers, and all of our staff,” said Principal Kristin Williams-Smalley. “And we all have a schoolwide social emotional learning program that we have implemented. … It’s an ongoing issue that our children are dealing with.” 

Roxborough High principal Kristin Williams-Smalley speaks to reporters (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

She said that Roxborough lost another student to gun violence in May. 

During the last school year, 199 city students were shot, and 33 of those died, district officials said. Less than three weeks into this school year, five students have been shot, and one died. Philadelphia’s efforts to restrict gun ownership have been blocked by the courts and a state law that bars municipalities from enacting their own gun control measures.

Shortly before the shooting, Mayor Jim Kenney had signed a law that restricted gun possession at public spaces in the city, including parks, recreation centers, and pools, but it was overturned in a court challenge.

When Nicolas was killed, four other teens were wounded by the bullets flying out of an SUV that had been lying in wait near Roxborough High.

Police don’t believe Nicolas was the intended target. One of the shooters jumped out of the car and chased another, older boy down the street, firing at close range before his gun jammed. 

Police have arrested four suspects in the killing and are still seeking a fifth person they believe was the main shooter. 

This week, Nicolas’ mother, Meredith Elizalde, called on state lawmakers to enact gun reform. Nicolas was her only child, and he died in her arms.

“I want them to get on the front lines and fight for gun sense, because if you’re not, you’re just part of the problem,” Meredith Elizalde said. 

Asked about the chances of gun reform, Williams-Smalley sounded weary. 

“I’m tired to go to funerals. I’m tired of visiting my colleagues at their schools when something happens to be a support for them. We are all, my colleagues across the city, we are all tired of the violence that is pervasive.”

As the students dispersed after planting the crocuses, Saavedra called after them.

“We’ll water them later on,” he said. 

A mural on one wall of Roxborough High in memory of Nicolas Elizalde features Nicolas’ football jersey number, 62. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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