Shawmont students protest removal of school police officer

Parents, students and staff from Shawmont Elementary fanned out in front of the Roxborough school Thursday afternoon to publicly protest the loss of a beloved full-time police officer.

In early February, the School District of Philadelphia let go of more than 80 per-diem officers citywide as part of an effort to close a $61 million budget gap. As part of that move, Officer Jannifer Downing was transferred from Shawmont to a Kensington elementary school that the District determined had a greater need for her services.

The Shawmont community was devastated by the news. Downing, cherished for her personal touch with students, had been on staff for nearly a decade.

“She’s part of our family and they took away our safety net,” said Candice Nelson, co-vice president of the school’s Home & School Association.

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Officers from the 5th Police District and other schools will randomly check-in at the school. But like many parents at Shawmont, Nelson is still concerned that the building’s typically tame hallways will become problematic as remaining staff members stretch to cover Downing’s day-to-day responsibilities.

The school has already witnessed an uptick in serious incidents in her absence, including a lunchroom fight between two eighth grade girls hours before the protest, said Nelson.

“Kids are fighting with each other because they know the police officer isn’t there all day,” she said.

Fellow parent Jill Wilson said shrinking the school’s police force, along with other cost-cutting measures, sends the wrong message to students at Shawmont and elsewhere.

Budget cuts have translated to program and staff cuts at Shawmont, including noon-time aides and a counselor. The school’s notable music program and mentally gifted program could come next.

“They’re treating our kids like they are just something to be thrown away. They’re not treating them with dignity and respect. It’s terrible,” said Wilson.

Wilson’ sentiments were echoed in the poster-board messages participants proudly displayed along the sidewalk. “Your budget cuts prosperity,” read one. “The only thing you’re killing is our future,” read another.

A Shawmont teacher, who asked to not be identified, said the school has already started losing families to the suburbs as the District continues to make cuts.

“Why should they stay here and pay taxes when they don’t feel like they’re getting anything for them?” said the teacher, noting that many of the school’s signature programs are being compromised. 

“We’re turning into just another teach-for-the-test factory,” the teacher added.

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