Hundreds of vacancies among city crossing guards, police, and 911 operators imperil children daily, and more must be done to address the public safety emergency, parents, school staff, and students said Thursday.
Across the city, more than 400 corners deemed dangerous enough to have a crossing guard currently have no one ensuring kids get to school safely. There are about 400 police vacancies, and 911 operator vacancies as well.
Waving signs, chanting, and wearing neon-yellow vests, dozens of parents, students, and supporters of Mastery Charter Schools gathered outside City Hall to highlight the shortages and plead with officials to do more.
“We are here to ask the city to provide city basic services to keep our children and our families safe,” said Markida Ross, parent of a child at Mastery Gratz Charter High School and an organizer with the Mastery network. “We can’t keep waiting.”
The staffing shortages have meant that one day after school, Mastery Gratz High School principal Le’Yondo Dunn found himself in the middle of Hunting Park Avenue “ripping students off each other” after students from a rival school came to Gratz at dismissal and a fight erupted. The school had made multiple 911 calls for help. The first was never answered and while a dispatcher picked up the second time, no officers ever came.
“When we contact 911, there should be someone on the other end of the phone,” said Dunn.
Filling public-safety vacancies, even in a tough labor market, must be a priority, the principal said.
“This is an easy win for us to prioritize young Black and brown youth to make sure they get home safely,” said Dunn.
Mastery officials met with the mayor and other city leaders last week to talk about staffing. Help was promised, but it’s not coming fast enough, Mastery supporters said Thursday.
“We need solutions on a scale with the problem,” Ross said.
Sarah Peterson, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said that officials are “working arduously” to hire more police and 911 operators, and that the city is now also hiring crossing guards from among a group of people who applied in January to fill the positions.
“We appreciate and share the schools’ urgent concerns about public safety, and their interest in partnering to identify and fill key roles in that effort,” Peterson said in a statement.
In all, the city is authorized for about 1,000 crossing-guard positions and 6,380 police officers. Police officials have blamed the pandemic, a tight labor market, and a decline in interest in law enforcement work nationwide as reasons for the officer shortage.
As a result of the public-safety shortages, Mastery has hired its own police. The network has hired off-duty Philadelphia officers to assist with safety at dismissal at its four high schools. (Mastery is the second-largest education system in the city, with 11 schools; the 216-school Philadelphia School District has its own school safety force.)
“It’s not the best use of education dollars,” Ceci Schickel, Mastery’s senior director of organization and advocacy, said of the money Mastery has used to hire a private police force.
Shavon Almodovar, a parent at Mastery Prep Charter School, has watched worriedly as cars whiz by and children attempt to cross busy streets. In one recent week, there were two accidents and one student nearly got hit. She felt moved to apply to be a crossing guard to help address the problem, but there’s no application available.
“We have hundreds of parents who want to be crossing guards,” said Almodovar. “We need to fill these vacancies.”
City Councilmember Derek Green, who joined the Mastery supporters at the rally Thursday, said money has been allocated to help alleviate the issue.
“The question is the leadership and execution to get it done,” said Green. “We should not be in this situation.”
The problem is not limited to Mastery schools, said City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who also joined the rally.
“This is for every school citywide,” Squilla said. “It’s not one or two schools. Every meeting we go to, people are talking about this.”