Packed crowd in West Philly presses mayor and police on gun violence

Mastery Charter Schools hosted its first ever “action assembly” at its Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia Monday night to engage public officials about how to make their neighborhoods safer.

The auditorium was standing room only and packed with more than 600 people.

Parents, students, and staff from Mastery showed up to discuss community gun violence with Mayor Jim Kenney and police department brass.

Parent Monica Haynesworth, flanked by two mothers who also lost sons to gun violence, told those in attendance about how her 16-year-old son Jameer was shot by a stray bullet while standing outside the house in June 2014.

“The guys that did the shooting did not care about the authorities because the police officers was out there, neighbors. My son was just an innocent bystander,” Haynesworth said. “He was a role model in the community, also his school. He always challenged his friends to do good in school. Last thing he put on his page was knowledge is power. I would ask all the children that’s here in my son’s memory to please continue to do good.”

Sixteen-year-old Ahmad Abdullah-Tucker said he feels the toll of gun violence.

“I’m a young man between the ages of 15 and 24. I want y’all to take time and take a look at me. I represent the face of gun violence here in the city of Philadelphia,” he said.

The junior lives in the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia.

“As a black dude, my first thought waking up in the morning is will I ever make it back home today,” the high schooler said.

Ten Mastery Charter students have been murdered — most recently Caleer Miller who was gunned down last fall along with St. Joe’s Prep student, Salvatore DiNubile, in South Philly.

“Black death is often invisible, and tonight is about visibility. Tonight is about highlighting those most affected by gun violence,” Abdullah-Tucker said.

Students sang the protest song, ‘Hell You Talmbout,” naming victims of gun violence with the refrain of ‘Say His Name,’ leaving some visibly shaken.

The event, months in the making, featured parents and students who spoke about the progress and work yet to be done to make neighborhoods safer.

Parent Action Committee, which represents 11,500 parents, organized it.

The first few rows were filled with more 20 police captains and deputies.

Grieving mothers who lost sons spoke about the devastation of gun violence.

Parent leader Maurice Jenkins said after meeting with police, six of Mastery’s 17 schools now have crossing guards to help kids arrive and leave safely.

He says the schools also have regular bike patrols and “police stopping by to get to know us, not just when there is a problem.”

Jenkins, a parent of students at Grover Cleveland Elementary School said there is still more work to do.

“We all know what we’re doing is not enough,” Jenkins said. “For some, getting to and from school can be dangerous. Kids get caught in the crossfire. Too many people are getting killed, too many families getting devastated.”

Jenkins is also pushing for what he calls “common-sense gun laws.”

“Our young people in our neighborhoods are not getting shot by assault rifles,” he said. “While we may support a ban on assault rifles, they have little impact on my neighborhood. Our young, mostly black men, are being killed by handguns, legal and illegal ones.”

He said they need a change in laws and policies that address their communities’ specific realities.

Others at the event asked Mayor Kenney and police leaders to make community policing a priority.

“Violence in any community is heartbreaking, especially when it affects our young people and our moms here who are heartbroken over the loss of their children,” said Kenney. “I know the stories we heard here today are only a small sample of what some of your children live through everyday, and that is tragic.”

Kenney mentioned how he created the Office of Violence Prevention last year and is currently reviewing what violence prevention money is being spent on.

“No child should be shot whether they are in school or anywhere in the city,” he said.

Then he asked parents to pressure state lawmakers to vote for gun law changes Philadelphia can’t enact on its own and offered to go with parents to Harrisburg.

First deputy police commissioner Myron Patterson said the sheer police presence at the assembly shows their commitment.

“We’ve been committed in our various initiatives that we do,” he said. “We have no issue with partnering and improving the quality of life and safety of our neighborhoods — and Mastery Charter is part of our overall community — and this is what we’re here to do.”

Charter Renewals

The assembly also discussed charter school renewals, the other discussion topic parents had deemed most important.

Parent Nikki Butterfield spoke about how Mastery helped her son who struggled with his letters at the beginning of kindergarten learn to read by the end and her older daughter who struggled in math improve at Hardy Williams Elementary and High School.

“My husband and I were planning to move,” she said. “We need to move because our house is too small for all five of us. But I refuse to move because I love my school … We parents are not going to let anyone take that choice away from us.”

One-third of students in Philadelphia attend charter schools.

Five Mastery Charter Schools have not had signed renewal agreements for the past two years. Those schools refused to sign the agreements since the city’s Charter School Office rewrote the charter agreements.

Kenney said he supports contract renewals between Mastery and the School Reform Commission getting finalized before end of school year or even more quickly.

“I’ve said many times that I want quality schools in every neighborhood. Charter schools are part of that solution; they’re not an impediment. They’re going to help us get to where we need to be.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.