On first day of school, Philly violence prevention activists call on dads to step up

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A group of people seem to celebrate as they hold up a green sign that reads,

Anthony Bannister-Fattah (left) speaks at the entrance to Overbrook High School after leading a march to highlight the importance of fathers in preventing violence. He is accompanied by City Councilmember Curtis Jones (center) and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (right). (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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At the start of the school year, Philadelphia community organizers are encouraging fathers, especially Black fathers, to get more involved in their children’s lives in hopes of keeping them safe from gun violence.

There have been 1,558 shootings in the city this year, and 9% of victims were under age 18. Before school on Monday morning, anti-violence activists walked from the House of Umoja, a West Philadelphia gun violence prevention organization, to Overbrook High School, which has lost students to gunfire in recent years. 

Their contingent of about a dozen people was one of several groups across the city participating in the Million Fathers March, a national event encouraging dads to walk kids to school.

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A group of men walk down a street bordered by rowhomes with a sign that reads "The House of Umoja Friends and Neighbors."
Anthony Bannister-Fattah (with megaphone), City Councilmember Curtis Jones (center) and District Attorney Larry Krasner (right) lead a march from the House of Umoja to Overbrook High School to mark the first day off the school year in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Iran Jackson, a father of three who joined the march, said strong family support is a big part of violence prevention.

“With a father in the house — a real father, somebody who’s invested, who’s involved —things turn out differently,” he said.

Many advocates and scholars say police brutality, community violence and the mass incarceration of Black men, especially during the 1980s, has left many children without dads. A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that 64% of Black children in America live in single-parent households, compared with 24% of white children.

Single parents are more likely to live in poverty than cohabiting couples, and low-income children are more likely to experience behavioral health issues including aggression, according to the report. Children from single-parent households are also more likely than other children to drop out of high school. 

A man with a megaphone stands in front of the entrance to a high school, with other people standing behind him.
Anthony Bannister-Fattah (left) arrives at Overbrook High School with a contingent of the Million Fathers March, marking the first day of school in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Alicia McGill said when she was a single parent, it was difficult to keep her teenage son’s behavior in line. But now his stepdad helps provide guidance.

“He was lashing out,” she said. “Now that he has a father figure in his life, I think everything goes well.”

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A woman stands with her arm around her son, who is about to go to his first day of school at Overbrook High School.
Alicia McGill takes her 7-year-old son, Denzel, to school after dropping her 15-year-old son, Deshawn, at Overbrook High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She intersected with the Million Fathers March organizers while dropping off her 15-year-old and 7-year old sons for their first days.

“Right now we’re losing fathers, children are acting out because of their fathers not being in their life,” she said. “I think it’s a great thing for them to have the event … it’s a positive impact on these young fathers.”

Damen Williams, who was at Overbrook Monday with his 3-year-old son, said communication is one of the most important steps a dad can take. That might mean asking kids about their interactions with friends and teachers, or just engaging them in an activity so they’re not always looking at a phone or iPad.

“I take a lot of pride in being a father … we all need to pass on that tradition,” he said.

A father sits on steps with his arm around his young son, who is turned towards him and looking up at him.
Damen Williams, a participant in the House of Umoja’s Million Fathers March, sits on the steps of Overbrook High School with his 4-year-old son, Dayon. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

He added that fathers need to teach their kids how to resolve an argument before it escalates to violence. Williams talks to teens about that through his work with the House of Umoja’s youth peace corps.

Many violence prevention activists have called for a return to the “village” model, where parents stay involved with not just their own children but the whole neigborhood’s children. At the Million Fathers March, Philadelphia City Councilmember Curtis Jones emphasized keeping a closer eye on youth to make sure they’re not involved in criminal activity.

A group of students check in at a table outside of their high school.
Students check in for the first day of school at Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Love is tossing their room at 7 in the morning,” Jones said. “Be prepared to have difficult conversations with your children.”

Most who participated in the Million Fathers March in West Philadelphia were grandparents, youth mentors, and faith-based leaders.

A father holds his son's hand as they both walk up a set of stairs.
Damen Williams, a participant in the House of Umoja’s Million Fathers March, leads his 4-year-old son, Dayon, up the stairs to Overbrook High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“There’s some men that are in place, and we’ll stand in the gap for those who aren’t until they wake up and they come together with us,” said organizer and pastor Iran Jackson.

Other organizations such as Frontline Dads held back-to-school walks on Monday. The School District of Philadelphia says they’re rolling out a program that trains adults to walk groups of kids to school in response to this summer’s rise in violence.

If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.

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