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Too many lockdowns to count: Gun violence has touched everything at one Philly school

"You can tell by kids’ inability to focus, concentrate, just look at their behaviors: They’re numb, disconnected, sometimes they don’t want to do work," school counselor Paula Crawford said.

Paula Crawford stands in the doorway that leads to the school yard at the U School, a Philadelphia public high school. Gun violence in the neighborhood has colored the school year for students and staff, said Crawford, a school counselor.
Paula Crawford stands in the doorway that leads to the school yard at the U School, a Philadelphia public high school. Gun violence in the neighborhood has colored the school year for students and staff, said Crawford, a school counselor.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The voice came, loud and insistent, over the loudspeaker: “There’s a lockdown, there’s a lockdown.” Christian Kelly, a 12th grader sitting in his classroom, felt his heart race.

On this sunny Thursday afternoon, gunfire had erupted across the street from the North Philadelphia U School. Kelly was inside, but some of his classmates were in the schoolyard, and others inside the corner store across the street, inches away from the shooting. Adults on the playground sprang into action, hustling inside the 10 or so students who watched the shootout unfold — but not before they all watched the gunman race past them.

Violence is not new to Philadelphia, but the impact after virtual learning and the city’s surging gun crisis has been especially outsized this school year. An eighth grader was shot to death in October on his way to E.W. Rhodes Elementary in North Philadelphia; less than two weeks later, gunfire injured two, killing one, at dismissal outside Lincoln High.

In the past, students and teachers said, Philadelphia schools and their immediate vicinities generally felt safe during the day, even in more crime-troubled pockets of the city. But that’s often no longer the case.

“The shooting at the store, it just made me think, ‘What will happen next?’ It was so close, there’s a fear, what if they shoot up the school while we’re in it?” said Kelly, 18.

Soon after the November shooting near the school, on Seventh near Norris, the principal decided it was too dangerous to let students spend time outdoors, though outside time had been a staple of students’ days, an important outlet. The agriculture teacher stopped sending students to tend plants alone and now doesn’t take kids on SEPTA for local field trips, because students are worried. Neighborhood walking trips stopped, too.

Paula Crawford, one of the U School’s counselors, has lost count of the number of lockdowns so far this school year: There was the student who was robbed at gunpoint getting off the bus to come to school; two intruders who made their way into the hallways one day. A 14-year-old, not a U School student, was shot outside the building one evening.

» READ MORE: This Philly school building is sorely in need of improvements. Teachers, parents, and kids are demanding better.

“We’re in the midst of a war zone,” said Crawford, a veteran counselor. “I used to say to parents, ‘As long as your teen gets on the bus and minds their business, nobody’s going to bother them.’ I can’t say that this year.”

As a citywide admissions school, U School is affected by gun violence in every corner of the city, and adults in the building say it has touched all aspects of the school year.

“You can tell by kids’ inability to focus, concentrate. Just look at their behaviors: They’re numb, disconnected. Sometimes they don’t want to do work,” said Crawford. “They’ll say, ‘Miss, you don’t know what’s going on. My friend just got killed.’ I have one student who lost a cousin and an uncle within a week.”

While the Philadelphia School District has emphasized trauma-informed practices and targeted extra supports such as additional counseling, behavioral health services and grief groups in some places, the U School staff say they feel they don’t have enough help.

In prior years, the school had deliberately moved its bell schedule to maximize police presence at dismissal, but a district-mandated schedule shift forced a change this year, and now there’s just one city officer — not sufficient, staff say.

And while some people expect students to be steeled against the violence, Christina Green-Lee, the U School’s other school counselor, is well aware that her students need help to manage their environments — at the same time she doesn’t have all the resources to help them.

“A lot of times our Black and brown students are not treated like children, we just expect for them to have this level of understanding as adults, but they’re not able to conceptualize how dangerous this situation is to them,” said Green-Lee. “There really are no resources specific to this type of violence that is affecting our school community. I have never been trained on how to address this type of violence. Anything I know is because of my own professional development around the topic.”

Jayme Banks, the district’s deputy chief for prevention, intervention, and trauma, said schools citywide have been deeply challenged by the level of gun violence in the city, but district-level supports are in place. Getting the message out about what’s available can be difficult.

“Sometimes, something happens in the community that I don’t know about,” said Banks. “But if they need resources, then we have to provide them. We’re really trying to increase the visibility of what’s available.”

The U School is small, with 300 students, emphasizing real-world experiences, centering students’ voices. “Love Dream Do” is its motto. Because it’s not a neighborhood high school, students choose to go there, drawn by the mission and by the school’s reputation as having a tight-knit atmosphere.

But the pandemic and a year of remote learning challenged the community. The U School used to have a strong peer mediation program that was a city model, able to handle the vast majority of school conflict; that program must now slowly rebuild.

“Every school is functionally starting from scratch, especially in high school,” said Neil Geyette, the school’s principal.

Staff challenges complicate things. The U School has a single school security officer, and a single climate staffer — it should have three based on its size, but two positions are open. When adults are absent, others have to pitch in. Substitutes are a rarity.

“When these things are happening in the community, you have a handful of adults that are protecting a student body of 300 — we have the power to do nothing but take cover,” said Vi Jones, the school’s climate manager, one of the adults outside when the November shooting occurred across the street from school.

Jones said she and others are struggling.

“A lot of us are experiencing heightened anxiety,” said Jones. “We don’t feel safe going to and from work. As a climate manager, I feel helpless in what I can do to support our school community.”

After the November shooting, some students were angry. Others concealed how they felt, trying to make it seem as if it didn’t matter, to save face.

“There’s a cascade effect — how does it make adults feel, how does it trigger students,” said Geyette, the principal. “Students have normalized this experience. We tell them, ‘It’s common, but it shouldn’t be normal.’”

A U School ninth grader said he now avoids public transportation; his mother drives him to school for safety’s sake.

“School should feel safe,” said the student, who asked that his name be withheld. “It’s something that I used to not pay attention to, but now I definitely do. It’s always this looming thing in the back of my mind — something could happen at school.”