‘Why do we just live to die?’ Community comes together to say enough to shootings near Philly schools.
Philadelphia police announced a plan to increase their presence in the mornings and afternoons in 25 school zones beginning next week.
In two years as principal of Vaux Big Picture High School in North Philadelphia, Shavonne McMillan can point to statistics that make her proud: 80% of children earning internships, 90% graduating, 60% getting into college.
But there are numbers that keep her up at night: Three Vaux students dead from gun violence, three more wounded, and several more arrested on weapons charges.
“There’s a war going on in these streets,” McMillan said, “and none of us are safe.”
As gun violence increasingly encroaches on Philadelphia schools — four shootings near schools this year as children entered or left classes — McMillan and dozens of other principals, politicians, clergy, community members and students rallied Wednesday to insist: enough.
Earlier Wednesday, at a virtual news conference separate from the principals’ rally, Philadelphia police announced a plan to increase their presence in the mornings and afternoons in 25 school zones beginning next week. Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales said authorities are establishing the “zones” after they noticed that, through the first few weeks of the academic year, officers were stationed at schools — but conflicts occurred a few blocks away, affecting students walking to and from the buildings.
Growing up, McMillan knew gun violence, she said. But it was “never close to our schools; schools were a safe haven.”
In Philadelphia, that’s no longer the case, principals said.
Thirty-five young people 18 and under have been shot since school began, city officials said. It was Monday when the latest shooting happened outside Lincoln High School, and a 66-year-old was killed by a stray bullet. A 16-year-old remains in critical condition.
On Oct. 8 at about 9 a.m., 13-year-old Marcus Stokes was fatally shot in North Philadelphia. He was about five blocks from E.W. Rhodes Elementary School, where he was in seventh grade.
Dales did not identify the zones that would soon see additional resources, saying police are still communicating the new strategy to principals. He did say police and district officials chose the areas that encompass 35 schools believed to be in communities at risk for violence. Police brass and district officials are set to meet again Thursday to finalize the staffing plan, which includes both Philadelphia police and safety officers employed by the district.
Dales added that an additional challenge is that the district is short on volunteers for its Safe Corridors program, which mobilizes community members to assist students traveling to and from school. Schools that aren’t in the 25 identified zones, Dales said, are still periodically checked by patrol officers.
City Councilmember Helen Gym, at the principals’ rally, said the police news is “most welcome, but let us be clear — it is long overdue, and our students need more.” Gym has called for a “youth-powered antiviolence agenda,” with not just safe corridors but ample after-school and summer opportunities for youth and guaranteed jobs for young people.
School-employee vacancies — some city schools have open positions for teachers and climate staff in the double digits — must factor in, and mental health services, too, must be prioritized, the councilmember said. The School District is providing increased mental health and trauma support services for schools heavily affected by gun violence, but generally, such help is “always promised but never seems to make its way into people’s lives,” Gym said.
One by one, Philadelphia principals approached a microphone set up to give a grim, powerful accounting of how violence has touched the city’s youth and their schools.
McMillan underscored that students don’t feel safe coming to school, and some don’t come to school because they’re not confident they will arrive unharmed. Principals and parents live in fear of receiving phone calls that their children have been shot.
And at school, COVID-19 is overshadowed by another epidemic that “permeates our halls with grief,” said McMillan, who fears for her own safety when she stands outside Vaux, at 23rd and Master, where she’s been close to armed shooters. “I want to keep all of my staff and students safe, and make it home to my three biological babies, too.”
Le’Yondo Dunn, principal of Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School, pulled out his phone to read a text message one of his students sent him Wednesday morning after yet another friend died of gun violence, and she felt lost.
“I’m so sad,” the young woman wrote to Dunn. “I just lost four friends in a month. Why do we just live to die? It’s like there is no way out of this.”
Dunn wished he was talking to his student about her postsecondary plans or even about mundane school matters, but that’s not the reality in Philadelphia. And it’s impossible to expect children living through daily trauma to walk into school and settle easily into learning.
“They had to fight for their lives to even walk into the building,” Dunn said. “And that should not be their experience.”
Dunn and others issued a call to action — to politicians, to educators, to community members, to parents.
“The cost of not doing anything is that we lose more young people,” Dunn said. Philadelphians should ask themselves, “Did I do everything I could do to protect Black and brown youth?”
Keisha Wilkins, principal of Martin Luther King High School, urged parents and the larger community to keep a closer watch on children.
“Let’s all come together,” said Wilkins, “to make sure we are doing what we need to be doing for our community.” She says 30 students at King have been shot or killed in her seven years there.
Bishop Dwayne Royster, a Philadelphia pastor and leader of the faith-based POWER activism group, said the city’s gun violence epidemic is the result of inadequacies that date back decades.
“Parents, check your kids,” Royster said. “Mayor, City Council, it’s time for us to have bold, creative legislation that addresses these issues in the city of Philadelphia.”