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One year after Parkland, Philly students, teachers say more counselors needed to deal with trauma from gun violence

Kendra Brooks, 46, a mother of four children in Philadelphia, says that every week, one of her children's friends is

Kendra Brooks, 46, a mother of four children in Philadelphia, says that every week, one of her children's friends is "buried." (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

Thursday marks one year since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which set off a wave of activism across the country, as students and youth called for more gun control and safer schools.

Young people in Philadelphia and other urban areas seized the opportunity to bring long-awaited attention to gun violence and trauma that impacts them on a regular basis.

But some activists, students, and teachers say one year later, not much has changed in the way of investments to fully address students’ needs.

Ismael Jimenez, a teacher at Kensington CAPA, was one of six panelists at a discussion forum on gun violence and trauma in schools and communities, hosted by the Caucus of Working Educators Sunday evening at Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.

“The hope is that we can really start a real conversation that can be extended into future activities and collaboration with folks that are really into changing the circumstances that produce so much trauma in our society,” said Jimenez, a member of the group.

The number of people shot in Philadelphia rose 10 percent in 2018 to 1,376, according to data from The Philadelphia Inquirer. About 10 percent of victims were under the age of 18, and almost 40 percent were between the ages of 18 and 25.

Educators and students say these statistics don’t tell the whole story, including the impact shootings have on the young people who witness or experience loss from gun violence. Research has shown these traumatic experiences can lead to behavior problems that diminish academic performance.

While state lawmakers and school districts like Philadelphia have increasingly recognized the importance of “trauma-informed” care in education, some of those at Sunday’s forum said they want the district to do more.

Herman Douglas, a seventh-grade reading and writing teacher at Mary McLeod Bethune School in North Philadelphia, and a member of the caucus said Bethune lost six former students to gun violence between 2016 and 2018. Douglas says he’d like to see more counselors and therapists in schools for students.

“We’re treating kids who have basically gunshot wounds to their mind and placing a band-aid on it instead of actually performing surgery to make sure that they’re whole,” he said.

The School District of Philadelphia listed 325 school counselors in January 2019, an increase from 303 in January 2018. However, the number of counselors serving close to 127,000 students, not including charters, breaks down to one counselor for about every 390 students. The ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association is 1 to 250.”

District spokesman Lee Whack said “we can always get better at what we’re doing,” and that the district is focused on improving its trauma-informed supports.

“We are continuing to work with our staff to make sure at the school level there are support for our students,” Whack said. “We do realize that we have a city that has various issues that trauma does take place whether it be in the home or the community.”

The Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) is urging the district to stop posting police officers in schools to free up resources for more student support, including counselors, nurses, and staff trained in de-escalation techniques.

The district budgeted $27.6 million for school police for FY19, and employs over 350 school police officers across the district, slightly outnumbering counselors, whose budget is about $21 million.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that black students make up 15 percent of total student enrollment, but are 31 percent of arrests and referrals to law enforcement.

Meanwhile, their white peers make up 49 percent of total enrollment, and 36 percent of arrests and referrals.

Whack says he understands the student union’s campaign, but the District hears from “a lot of families” on the importance of having school police to support schools.

PSU helped organize a march after a national 17-minute walkout that took place one month after the Parkland shooting. Hundreds of students marched from the School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters to City Hall, demanding action around the gun violence that impacts their communities and classrooms.

“What we can’t miss is the fact that there were even more students who walked out of their schools for 17 minutes because they believed this conversation was bigger than just a shooting that happened in Florida,” said Julien Terrell, PSU’s executive director. “They understood that this was an opportunity to start looking at how do we change the culture within schools? How do we support students in really taking their education into their own hands? And I think that’s what we have to be mindful of a year later.”

Nyjah Smith, a student at Freire Charter School, said she participated in the demonstration and was optimistic about the impact of activism by her and her peers.

“Young folk are actually seeing we’re the change,” she said. “We’re the ones that’s going to make a change. We’re the ones that’s going to shift folks’ narratives.”

Editor’s Note:  This story has been updated to reflect that six former students of Douglas died from gun violence. An earlier version also miscalculated the counselor-to-student ratio.

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