The other victims of Kensington’s opioid crisis: Children bearing witness
Philadelphia's opioid crisis has forced teachers and principals to step to the front lines of an epidemic that is deadlier here than in every other major American city.
On Election Day, with their students at home, Kensington High School teachers gathered in principal Jose Lebron's office with an easel and poster paper, and made a list titled, "How Students Feel."
"Hopeless. There is no escape," the teachers wrote, trying to capture their students' feelings.
"Upset." "Depressed." "Nothing."
Weeks before, the City of Philadelphia declared a disaster in the neighborhood over the opioid crisis, and Lebron wanted to know what his teachers had been hearing from their students, most of whom have grown up in this historically neglected, drug-plagued community.
Educators in Kensington have long been helping students deal with trauma. Just since August, Lebron's school has lost three students to shootings. But the opioid crisis is unlike anything seen before, principals and school officials said in recent interviews, forcing teachers and principals to join residents, city officials, and advocates on the front lines of an epidemic in which Philadelphia outpaces every other major American city for its deadliness. It has compelled a conversation about how the city cares both for those in addiction and for residents who live and learn in Kensington.
Children routinely watch drug users inject themselves — and they also see paramedics race to reverse overdoses. Every morning, school janitors scour the playgrounds for discarded needles and other evidence of a homeless population in addiction that has doubled in a year.
Some students deal with addiction within their own families, and are further traumatized by seeing people openly inject heroin and fentanyl as they walk to school. Some go far out of their way to avoid the drug encampments in the neighborhood, and are late to class. Many worry about "becoming a part of what they see," a teacher wrote on her poster-paper list.
At least the students at Kensington High are old enough to articulate some of their feelings. Lewis Elkin Elementary is a few blocks from McPherson Square, better known to local kids as "Needle Park." Children so young, said principal Charlotte Maddox, don't have the words to describe what they see and feel. They do know that the people they see are in pain, but the situation has become almost normal for many.
She walked one of her third-graders to the library in McPherson Square a few weeks back. "It was the scariest walk I had," she said, not just because they stepped over needles and past people injecting drugs, but because "the child I was walking with didn't think anything of it."
A few dozen children transferred out of Elkin this year, which is about normal, Maddox said. She said, though, that more parents had told her they were moving from the neighborhood because of the visibility of the opioid crisis.
Heroin users used to be more hidden from neighborhood children, since they tended to flock to a railroad gulch off Gurney Street. But last year, when the city and Conrail cleared out the gulch, Lebron began to worry about what his students would encounter on their walks to school.
By fall last year, encampments began to sprawl along Lehigh Avenue.
"This issue was not on our sidewalks," said Evelyn Nunez, the assistant superintendent who oversees Kensington's public schools and grew up in the neighborhood. "Prior to the railroads being cleaned, it was an adult problem. Children rarely had to see it."
Numerous people in addiction have told reporters and researchers that they wish children didn't have to see them, either. Some try to hide their needles when children pass, but intense cravings and withdrawal pain can make that impossible. It's a frequently mentioned reason for opening a medically supervised injection site, where drugs can be used off the streets.
In the meantime, "safe corridor routes" to area schools, with parents and store owners standing watch, are expected to begin after the Thanksgiving break around Elkin and nearby Francis E. Willard Elementary School. Parents from Russell Conwell Middle School, the magnet school across the street from Willard, will also pitch in.
"This is like all hands on deck," Willard principal Diana Garcia told parents who met a few weeks ago to discuss the routes. "We're going to show our children that we can keep them safe."
Outside Willard last week, parents walking their children home spoke of the unique challenges of growing up in Kensington.
Jamar Mears walks his 6-year-old, Jamir, back and forth to Willard every day. "The drug activity — I've seen it a lot throughout my lifetime, but not as bad as down Kensington, down here," he said. Like his classmates, Jamir knows not to pick up needles, a lesson that is a routine aspect of parenting in Kensington.
Richard Beauford's 5-year-old, Ajvonna, a Willard kindergartner, knows to cross the street to avoid a person injecting heroin. "We tell them, 'You don't do that. It's not good for you,' " Beauford said. "A safe route to the school would help a lot."
Some of the kids at Kensington High have told their teachers they laugh at the people living rough. The teachers think that's a coping mechanism. Other students say they slip spare pretzels to people in the encampments, and some even volunteer with a church group to hand out food on weekends. These are encouraging signs that students are maintaining the compassion they're taught by parents and teachers, Maddox and Lebron said.
When her students see a person struggling with addiction, Maddox said, "they see a human being who is hurt. They can't name the hurt. But we teach them to fix hurt, and that compassion they have in the midst of that confusion should be highlighted."