The Philadelphia School District will spend close to a million dollars over the next three years to station members of the community in targeted communities in an effort to keep children safe on their way to and from schools.
Based on a Chicago program, Philadelphia’s plan will start at four high schools: Lincoln, Motivation, Sayre, and Roxborough, and expand to others. The “Safe Path” program will pay trusted community members and equip them with radios and bright, reflective vests to serve as eyes and ears — not to take physical action against anyone armed with a gun. Kevin Bethel, the district’s chief of school safety, said he wants Safe Path operational before the end of the school year.
“I can no longer sit back and wait for volunteers while I see in some of our corridors the issues we’re having,” Bethel said. Details on what the groups will be paid and how they can apply will be shared soon, he said.
The news comes amid a gun violence crisis that has affected schools across the city. This month, a shooting outside of Lincoln just after dismissal killed a 66-year-old and gravely wounded a 16-year-old, and a 13-year-old seventh grader was killed on his way to classes at Rhodes Elementary.
Last week, a student at Philadelphia Learning Academy-South shot himself in the leg in the school’s gym.
Students and staff often don’t feel safe going to school, and that alarms Bethel.
“That’s just not acceptable,” he said. “All of us have the duty and responsibility to make our schools safe.”
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. agreed.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not outraged by the acts of violence going on throughout the city of Philadelphia,” said Hite.
The Philadelphia Police Department announced last week an increased presence in 25 zones affecting 38 schools across the city. The Safe Path program is separate, the result of a grant and additional funding pledged by Hite. It won’t be on the same scale as Chicago’s $30 million program, which employs 1,500 “ambassadors” — but Bethel said the district will be strategic about which schools need the services.
Bethel, a former city police deputy commissioner, said even those two programs won’t be enough without additional action.
To date, city police have confiscated 6,000 assorted weapons, he said.
“You can only imagine how many they’re not confiscating,” said Bethel. “We have a gun problem.”
Hite said he, Bethel, and the school board president met this week with District Attorney Larry Krasner to discuss gun violence and how officials can “ensure that we acknowledge that schools are sacred places for our young people.”
In the case of the PLA-South shooting, Bethel said the district moved quickly to figure out how the student got a gun into the school, and that steps have been taken to address issues in that particular building, which houses three district alternative programs.
Every high school student must pass through metal detectors, but school leaders say students sometimes slip out through unmonitored exit doors, then have friends readmit them without going through the scan.
Tensions are high in many city schools, and part of that comes from students returning to class after 18 months spent behind a computer screen.
“Social media and the beefs online are not something I’ve seen to this level,” Bethel said.
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. You can find other stories in the series here and follow us on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.