A field of 230 orange flags and 27 sobering signs stands near the busy intersection of Ogontz and Olney Avenues, a testament to students’ grief, anger, and fears.
“One Student Is Worth More Than Any Gun,” a rider in a passing SEPTA bus might read. “This Should Be A School Zone, Not A War Zone,” a motorist might see. Each sign represents each of the school shootings that have taken place across the United States so far in 2022; each flag represents every mass shooting in the country this year.
The public art installation, which went up on Central High’s lawn Friday, was a way for English teacher Kristen Peeples’ 10th- and 11th-grade students to process their feelings about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which claimed 19 children and two teachers last month.
It can be tough to capture students’ attention in the final weeks of a long school year; Peeples’ initial plan was to have students work on a poster project about a movie they were watching. But Uvalde changed that — students decided they had something to say about it, even if there were no grades involved. (Peeples did not require participation, but the majority of her 130 students opted in.)
“There’s a school shooting every week, and you forget that these are real people, real communities that are being destroyed,” said student Lucas O’Donnell, 16. “It’s only a matter of time before it’s us.”
Gun violence seeps into everyday life in a shocking way, said Gabrielle Quiñones: If you put your phone down to get away from news, you turn on the TV and it finds you there.
“We need projects like this where we’re actively feeling passionate about the situation — because of how easy it is to be desensitized to a school shooting,” said Quiñones, 16.
Students spent days making posters, complete with QR codes that lead to information about school shootings. They also talked about solutions, and about the difference between how white shooters and Black and Latino shooters are portrayed and treated.
The project led to discussions about students’ own sense of security at Central, in Philadelphia.
“Even though we have the active-shooter drills, we have metal detectors, we still don’t feel safe in our schools,” said Peter Frankunas, 16. “Just because we have a drill for something that might happen — why don’t we prevent it before it happened?”
Na’Dera White said one fact kept playing over and over again in her head.
“It’s easier to get a gun than it is to get baby formula,” said White, 16. “It’s just crazy to me that it’s easier for someone to go get a gun than it is to feed their child.”
Jose Hernandez said he was sickened when he thought about the politics around guns.
“It’s frankly disgusting that these politicians who are supposed to represent us don’t listen to what we say,” said Hernandez, 15. “We want change. They’re supposed to vote for change.”
Some students felt conflicted about whether to work on the project: Should they be donating to Uvalde victims’ funeral funds instead? Were signs enough?
Ultimately, Peeples and her students decided “this isn’t a solution, and it’s not intended to be,” she said. “We can process our grief and inform the public through art.”
It was pure coincidence that the project got installed on Friday, national Gun Violence Awareness Day, Peeples said. But it felt fitting.
“This is a crisis,” she said.