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Three of my students were shot and killed last month. Philly’s leaders are nowhere to be found. | Opinion

The principal of Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School, who has lost nine students in one year to gun violence, says the city lacks an organized and unified response to our shooting crisis.

Principal Le’Yondo Dunn at Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School
Principal Le’Yondo Dunn at Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High SchoolRead moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The effect of gun violence across Philadelphia is disturbing, overwhelming, heartbreaking — and, most important, inexcusable.

Our city’s children should not have the experience of looking across their classroom at the end of the year to notice several of their peers are not able to graduate or be promoted to the next grade because they’ve been shot and killed.

In September, Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School, where I am the principal, endured the pain of the tragic deaths of three students due to gun violence and one other student injured from gun violence. Last year, my school community lost two students within 24 hours. In that same week, a recent alumnus was killed, and another student was injured by gun violence.

Demetrius Moore, ninth grader

Jahsear Pitts, ninth grader

Rashede Clement, 10th grader

Namir Johnson, 10th grader

Tommie Frazier, 12th grader

Jordon Murray, 12th grader

Ross Carter, recent alumnus

Michael Mines, recent alumnus

Amir Simpson, recent alumnus

Jauan Scott, recent alumnus

I say their names because each of these students was loved and valued. Their lives mattered. There are countless other students and families who have been and continue to be harmed by gun violence who are not reflected above. Several other students have either been shot or shot at.

This should not be the lived experience of our students and their families. Students should not fear for their safety as they commute to school or sit outside their homes. More must be done.

Sadly, the issue of gun violence in Nicetown and Tioga is not new. For decades, gun violence has plagued North Philadelphia communities and in the process destroyed hundreds of families and taken the lives of countless innocent children.

Experiencing the loss of a child, a friend, a classmate, or student is heart-wrenching. Reliving that experience over and over can lead to unimaginable trauma for an entire school community.

Despite the daily headlines of shootings and slain teenagers, our community lacks an organized and unified response to increase the safety of these neighborhoods. When trying to crack down on gun violence, it’s hard to know where to start. While there are trusted partners in the city whom I rely on and who support us, I continue to wonder: What work is being done to further mitigate the impacts of gun violence in our communities? What programs are available? Whom can families and children go to if they need support? If I don’t know the answers to those questions, I can assure that our families and students also don’t have the answers.

I refuse to leave the safety of my students up to chance. We must act now. I, along with the broader Mastery community, am committed to working with stakeholders to answer those questions and bring about results.

This work is critical. We cannot sit back and plan for a year, or wait. That’s why Gratz has expanded access to sports and afterschool activities to ensure students have structured opportunities outside of school hours. We are also connecting students and families with violence interrupters for support and guidance to appropriately navigate any conflicts they may be facing in their communities.

In the coming weeks we will launch a targeted intervention pilot program that pairs our most vulnerable students with a mentor. These students will also receive cognitive behavioral therapy. Additionally, we have hired a director of healthy communities to both lead our anti-gun violence work and to serve as a bridge to families and students for additional resources.

Still, these efforts are not enough. Violence interruption programs like Cure Violence and Group Violence Initiative’s focused deterrence serve our community and are proven to work. Grassroots organizations are trying to tackle these issues and need resources to thrive. We need additional support and resources from our city officials to expand access to prevention programs and to implement other national best practices. I welcome the opportunity to meet with and work alongside our mayor, district attorney, police commissioner, business leaders, and block captains to be a part of the solution.

Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” No truer words describe the journey of Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School.

Once labeled as one of Philadelphia’s most violent and academically underachieving high schools, Gratz can now boast that 95% of our graduating class attends a four-year university, two-year university, or trade school, or enters the workforce.

In the wake of the recent tragedies, our students transformed their sorrow and grief into action. They organized and led an anti-gun violence march, where they chanted the names of those we have lost, and demanded action from city officials.

Their resilience and determination are humbling. As the principal for Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School, I believe it is my job to ensure their voices are heard. It is our collective responsibility to bring about change.

Through this struggle, we will progress.

Le’Yondo Dunn is principal at Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School.