Four days after 13-year-old Marcus Stokes was fatally shot in North Philadelphia on his way to school, his fellow students came back to the classroom at lunchtime to set up a makeshift memorial.
They hung up a picture of Marcus that their teacher, Marcella Hankinson, had printed at Staples, and they strung balloons of blue and white, his favorite colors. They placed candles and a single rose next to a teddy bear on his desk, and they scrawled messages to him on red sticky notes next to his picture.
I love you Marcus, one student wrote. I wish you were still with us, said another.
A third wrote: I miss u. Like damn, u did not make it to 8th grade. Love u Mark.
The death has left students and teachers at E.W. Rhodes School traumatized, fearful, and in a state of “utter devastation,” said Principal Andrea Surratt, who oversees the school that serves kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. It’s the first time a student was fatally shot in her four years at the helm, and it took place five blocks from the school, triggering an hour-long lockdown.
Surratt said she was stunned to learn that Marcus had been killed. She described him as “a perfect student who was just a really popular, beautiful kid.” He was bright, played basketball, and was involved in extracurricular activities. His loss has affected children in every grade, she said, “because he was connected to so many people.”
“He was smart, intelligent, articulate, and everybody loved him,” Hankinson said, “because his smile was infectious. And the students really enjoyed being his friend.”
Each morning when Marcus arrived in her class, she said, he shook hands with everyone in the room.
Last Friday morning, he didn’t make it there.
Investigators believe Marcus and five other young people — including other Rhodes students — were sitting in a parked car on the 3100 block of Judson Street before 9 a.m. on Oct. 8. A gunman approached the vehicle and fired shots into it, hitting Marcus once in the chest, authorities said.
Homicide Capt. Jason Smith said officers found 12 shell casings at the scene, and investigators have recovered some surveillance footage showing a possible suspect fleeing. No one has been arrested. Smith said detectives have not determined a motive but don’t believe Marcus was the shooter’s intended target. He did not elaborate.
Marcus is one of nearly 170 children who have been killed or injured by bullets in Philadelphia this year, by far the most since at least 2015, as the city grapples with a gun violence epidemic.
His school, at 29th and West Clearfield in North Philadelphia, is in a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of gunfire in the city. Many of the students know someone who has been shot, and their emotional wounds reopened this week when they learned their classmate wasn’t coming back to school.
Even the youngest of the 413 students felt it. A first grader who lives in the neighborhood didn’t come to school Tuesday, fearful of walking through an area where gunshots might fly, the girl’s teacher, Wanda Beaver, said. After Marcus was killed, the girl and her older sister wondered: “What could happen to us?”
The district hired extra counselors to provide grief therapy to students who needed support this week, and school staffers are working in overdrive.
Middle school counselor Kristen Dietz said school leaders are trying to strike a balance: They want to be flexible for students who act out in grief, or need to take breaks to cry. But teachers also want to keep classes as structured as possible to help students rebound from the shooting, which came after a year-and-a-half of pandemic-related turbulence.
Outside the classrooms, Surratt and school security officer William Allen meticulously plan for the two most volatile times of day: when kids arrive, and when they leave. Before the children are released from the building, Allen walks the perimeter and peers into cars and looks around corners, searching for anyone who might try to hurt a student. The school this week is staggering dismissal so older kids leave at a different time than the younger ones.
Parents — some of whom heard the gunshots after dropping off their kids — are worried about their children’s safety getting to and from school. One came to the office distraught this week, gravely concerned about her daughter’s trek each day through the neighborhood. Surratt gave the girl a free pass to use SEPTA.
Yellow bus transportation is provided for most students through sixth grade, but students older than that are only eligible to receive free transit via SEPTA if they live more than a mile and a half from school.
Surratt said a counselor has requested that the district make an exception for her students because of the gunfire in the neighborhood and the anxiety the students are experiencing. The school must remain “an oasis,” she said, in a neighborhood where violence is persistent.
If the district doesn’t approve the request, Surratt said, she’ll buy the SEPTA passes herself.
“I’m not gonna risk another child losing their life. I can’t do it,” she said. “This is a battle every single day to get these kids home safely and here safely. Every single day. And we are always terrified.”
Hankinson said she’s trying to maintain as much stability as possible, continuing her morning routines in homeroom. Every day, the students hang sticky notes on a whiteboard under the words “Mental Health Check-In,” indicating how they are feeling. The choices range from “great” to “so-so” to “I’m struggling and need a check-in.”
A week after Marcus was killed, no one was “great.”