‘We need help’: Students at Dobbins High School walk out over safety concerns

Dobbins High School in Philadelphia (Google maps)

Dobbins High School in Philadelphia (Google maps)

A lack of teachers and security guards. Senseless acts of violence from students.

Those are two of the reasons Shamica Fordyce, a senior at Dobbins High School, said she walked out of school Monday afternoon along with dozens of her classmates.

“I was nervous that a lot of students would be afraid, but I was happy to see a good amount of students walk out,” Fordyce said in a written response to questions.

School District of Philadelphia spokesperson Marissa Orbanek confirmed in an email that between 50 and 100 students walked out at 2 p.m. Monday. The school has about 1,100 students.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I wanted to let everyone know that we need help and assistance within our school,” Fordyce said. “We need more support from more adults.”

Orbanek said school leadership allowed students to walk out and students who participated were not disciplined.

“Since walking out would not be as effective as voicing concerns directly to administration, school staff tried to encourage students to participate in alternative methods,” Orbanek said, noting that Dobbins’ principal Shervon Thompson was available to meet with students in the school’s auditorium while the walkout was happening.

In a letter to families, Thompson said she appreciated the leadership students took “to peacefully and respectfully advocate for what they believe in.”

But members of Dobbins’ community said the letter doesn’t line up with what Thompson told students earlier in the day.

Shortly before students walked out of the building, some holding signs reading ‘Save our school,’ Thompson made an announcement stating that Dobbins’ administrators did not condone the protest.

“Do not walk out,” she can be heard saying in a recording of the announcement. “You will be marked absent and there will be no change or excuse for your absence.”

Fordyce said she felt it was important to walk out rather than meet with Thompson.

“We wanted other people to know what’s happening in the building,” she said. “Just going inside of the auditorium, I feel as though that’s just, like, concealing the problem.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Thompson said she’s committed to “creating environments where students feel valued,” pointing to open Zoom meetings she hosts weekly to meet with students.

“I plan on continuing to meet with students and staff to document any concerns that they may have and create a plan together on how to best support Dobbins community,” she said.

Fordyce said she wasn’t aware of the Zoom meetings until Thompson mentioned them the day of the walkout. She hasn’t attended one since, but said she and a classmate met with Thompson privately this week to discuss their concerns.

Dobbins, a technical high school in Northwest Philadelphia, has had significant safety issues since at least the start of the school year, according to teachers and students.

Last month, sources told The Philadelphia Inquirer the school has “a chaotic, unsafe environment.” The Inquirer’s editorial board published a column in response, calling on the district to take action.

A week and a half later, Superintendent Tony Watlington announced his plan to address the impact of gun violence on students, which is a big part of the problem at Dobbins, including increasing police presence around schools.

He promised to direct more resources to specific schools and said the district had already hired a retired administrator to address safety and culture issues at Dobbins.

But staff say problems have persisted.

Dobbins employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution for their comments, said large and frequent fights have continued to happen right outside the school. Students typically gather to watch and film the fights to post to social media, they said.

Staff said efforts to get students not to use their cell phones during the day, in part to help curb fighting, haven’t been working. Dobbins is one of several district schools that uses magnetic pouches from a company called Yondr Inc. to lock up students’ cell phones.

The district was considering expanding use of the pouches to any district school that wanted them, but tabled a proposed $5 million contract with Yondr in October following community pushback.

“Those Yondr pouches aren’t being used,” one Dobbins staff member said. “All the rules are being broken.”

The staff member said the lack of discipline in general has created an environment where students feel emboldened to act out.

“It’s just a safety issue all the way around. You have kids that are hitting teachers and setting trash cans on fire and there’s nothing happening, so of course they’re going to keep doing it.”

Reporting from the Inquirer found safety concerns are widespread across Philadelphia schools, in part due to the district’s decision to turn away from reactive and exclusionary discipline without implementing meaningful alternatives.

A different staff member pointed to a shortage of teachers at Dobbins as part of the problem. They said the administration has not provided appropriate support for students who are struggling to learn because of fear of violence.

“Everyone is trying to run around and do their best. Without infrastructure support, that ‘best’ is not enough for young people,” they said. “No one can succeed in a system like this.”

Staff members said a sequence of events last week, beginning with two students allegedly assaulting another student off-campus, helped incite Monday’s walkout.

A 14-year-old female was assaulted after school Wednesday at the corner of Broad and Lehigh, about 1 mile from Dobbins, according to Philadelphia police.

Police arrested two 15-year-old female Dobbins students in connection with the incident Thursday morning at 2150 W. Lehigh Avenue, which is the address of the school. An investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Orbanek, the district’s spokesperson, said the two students were disciplined in accordance with district policy. She declined to share further details, including whether the students returned to school the following day, citing student privacy.

Then on Friday, students reported gunfire a block away from the school shortly after dismissal. In a letter to parents, Thompson said, “students took cover, and thankfully, they are all safe.”

In her announcement on Monday, Thompson said “no one was injured” in the incident on Friday.

Orbanek later said one student fell while running away and was transported to a hospital “where it was determined that they were not struck by gunfire.” Fordyce said Thompson has not acknowledged that student’s apparent injuries.

“I just wish that [Thompson] would at least mention that student instead of saying that nothing really happened,” Fordyce said.

Thompson wrote to families later that day to inform them of the incident and said the district’s office of school safety immediately contacted the police. She said school administrators take “situations like this very seriously” and “additional resources and support” would be available for students that coming Monday.

“While we are fortunate that our students are all safe, it is also my hope that all parents, guardians, and members of our community understand the dangers of possessing firearms and other weapons near our schools where our children are gathering. We all share a collective responsibility to keep our students safe and model positive and appropriate conflict resolution skills to our students,” Thompson said.

Fordyce said she hopes to see more frequent communication between school administrators, parents, and students.

“What I think should happen next is we should have a talk with each grade level separately, with no sugarcoating and also a parent conference,” she said. “We don’t need any more arguing and accusations.”

UPDATE: This story was updated on Friday, Dec. 16, to include additional reporting about Thompson’s announcement on Monday and the students’ reaction.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal