‘I wish I could promise all my students safe travels, but I can’t’: Philly leaders address gun violence, student safety

Veronica Joyner speaks from a podium during a press conference

Veronica Joyner, founder and principal of Maths, Civics, and Sciences High School, said Philadelphia students deserve to play in the streets and feel safe, at a school safety press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Just a few months into the school year, there have already been at least four shootings near Philadelphia school buildings, as the city grapples with historically high rates of gun violence.

In response, the Philadelphia Police Department is increasing its presence in 25 school zones across the city, encompassing 38 mostly middle and high schools.

At a press conference Monday, as the new initiative went into effect, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the zones were selected based on the department’s latest crime data.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Danielle Outlaw speaks from a podium during a press conference
Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Danielle Outlaw said PPD officer presence would increase around at-risk schools at a school safety press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“In short, officers assigned to these zones will be on the lookout for suspicious activity,” said Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. “Students and parents will notice an increase in visible officers.”

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Mayor Jim Kenney, District Attorney Larry Krasner, and other city and school leaders joined Outlaw to stress the urgency of addressing gun violence, and the need to protect students as they travel to and from school.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks from a podium during a press conference
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner lead a press conference about school safety press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“The rise in gun violence in our city in the wake of a pandemic is sickening, particularly when children are endangered, harmed, and sometimes tragically killed,” Kenney said. “This is unacceptable, and my top priority is to combat the scourge of gun violence in our city.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaks from a podium during a press conference
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney talked about the importance of after school activity programs to his administration at a school safety press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“In recent weeks, district students were victims of some of the most unsettling acts of gun violence,” said Superintendent William Hite. “A 13-year-old was shot on the way to school. A 17-year-old was shot down a few steps away from the school, leaving school. A 16-year-old was ambushed outside of his home.”

Hite said that while violence is not a new phenomenon, more brazen behavior in and around schools has caused young people to “begin to get worried, traumatized about whether or not it’s safe to travel to and from school.”

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Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite speaks from a podium during a press conference
Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said it was critical for city offices to work together to ensure school safety at a press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In addition to partnering with PPD on the school safety zone program, the School District of Philadelphia is also launching a pilot program that will pay and train trusted community members to help create a safe path to school. The district hopes to start the “Safe Path” initiative at four high schools by the end of the school year.

At the press conference, school leaders called for wide-scale efforts to address gun violence.

Aliya Catanch-Bradley speaks from a podium during a press conference
Principal Aliya Catanch-Bradley said she worries most about students’ travel into the building at a school safety press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I wish I could promise all my students safe travels, but I can’t,” said Aliya Catanch-Bradley, principal of Mary McLeod Bethune School. Her students and their families “are plagued daily with the gun violence that is out of control in our city and we’re all here to be part of the solution,” she said. “We clearly can’t police our way out. It will take all of us.”

One of her students, 8th grader Herman Andino, shared his own fears about getting to class.

“Even though I feel safe in my school, I don’t feel safe around my school,” Andino said. “I don’t feel safe coming out of school. I get anxiety because just around the corner, eight murders have been happening to students my age and it’s not right.”

Herman Andino speaks from a podium during a press conference
Herman Andino, 8th grade Bethune elementary school student, urged people to stay positive and work together at a school safety press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Jaylin Heath speaks from a podium during a press conference
Jaylin Heath, 12th grade Maths, Civics and Sciences High School student, said he lost a friend to gun violence last year at a school safety press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Veronica Joyner, founder of the Mathematics, Civics & Sciences Charter School, became emotional as she spoke about losing students to gun violence, and teaching students to stop, drop, and take cover as part of the school’s fire drill.

“Why should I have to teach children to do that in the City of Brotherly Love?” she asked.

peaks from a podium during a press conference
Maths, Civics, and Sciences High School’s Mock Trial team, ranked fourth in the world, was recognized by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner at a school safety press conference at Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school on Nov. 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We continue in this city like business as usual. Another one shot. 458 deaths. I am tired. I am devastated,” Joiner said. “When I have my children afraid to come to school, it’s a problem.”

She called on the city to declare a state of emergency over the gun violence crisis.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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