On Wednesday morning, the principal of Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter received a text from one of his students, expressing grief that a friend had just died.
I really watched this little boy grow up. I’m so sad. I just lost four friends in a month. Why do we just live to die? It’s like there is no way out of this.
Principal Le’Yondo Dunn related the text to a group of educators, politicians, racial justice organizers, and clergy who gathered Wednesday evening to call for a coordinated, citywide strategy to address gun violence outside Philadelphia schools.
“Why should that be the words and the lived experience of a student in this city?” Dunn said. “That should not be what I’m having a conversation about with a student at 9am.”
On Monday, a gunman opened fire outside Lincoln High School in Mayfair, critically wounding a 16-year-old boy and killing a 66-year-old with a stray bullet. It was the fourth incidence of gun violence near the front steps of a school this year.
“We are here today united around grief and outrage at the latest shooting outside of a school,” said Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym. “The devastating loss of an innocent bystander, the critical condition right now of a 16-year-old child fighting for their lives, are the latest in a line of shootings that is bringing us together to say, ‘no more.’”
The group urged city leaders to establish school safety zones in communities where violence is most concentrated, with a focus on protecting students during arrival and dismissal.
“We are asking for a safe perimeter to and from schools,” said Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, adding that schools should be safe havens for students.
Leaders also called for more resources to fill staff vacancies across the School District of Philadelphia and more mental health and trauma support for students.
Earlier Wednesday, at a virtual update on the city’s response to gun violence, Philadelphia police shared plans to boost their presence at 25 school zones across the city.
“We will go into full implementation by Monday of next week,” said Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales. He did not identify the zones, but said they were selected because of an increased risk for violence.
At the press conference, Gym said the announcement was “most welcome, but let us be clear — it is too long overdue and our children need more,” including after-school programs and job opportunities.
The principals in attendance shared the impact of gun violence — both directly in front of schools and in the larger community — on their students.
“I think there’s often a misconception around ‘Why can’t kids just walk into the building, sit down and get to work?’” Dunn said. “They can’t walk into the building and sit down and get to work because they had to fight for their lives to even walk into the building, and that should not be their experience.”
Shavonne McMillan, principal of Vaux Big Picture High School, said some parents are reluctant to send their children to school, “due to the fear of receiving a dreadful phone call that their baby had been shot just outside of their school building.”
She empathizes with them. In late September, a 15-year-old boy was struck by a bullet and injured just outside her North Philadelphia school.
“I stood only feet away from an alleged shooter who positioned their car on the corner of my school building and opened fire during our school’s dismissal, striking an innocent student on his way home from school,” she said. “I represent that student who just wants to go to school, explore opportunities, and make it home alive and unscathed.”
McMillan also said she would like to address the shooters, urging them to honor a code and not open fire outside schools.
“When I was growing up, violence was inevitable. Gun violence hit close to home for me as well, but never close to my schools,” said McMillan, who was raised in Jersey City.
Dunn, who has lost four students — including a recent alum — to gun violence since the school year started, stressed that everyone from elected officials to police officers has a role to play in keeping students safe.
“Can we look at these beautiful faces and tell our students that we did everything within our power to protect them? Make sure they can get to school safely, have a great experience while they’re in school, get home safely?” Dunn said.
“If we cannot do that, we need to step back and allow people who are willing and ready to do that to step into those positions,” he said, “because we should not sit back and allow one more youth to have to experience what students in this city are experiencing right now.”
More than 340 minors under 21 have been injured due to gun violence in Philadelphia this year. More than 70 have been killed.