Teachers and students use class time to discuss gun violence after Roxborough shooting

Across Philadelphia, teachers are grappling with how to discuss Tuesday’s shooting at Roxborough High with frustrated and fearful students.

Police officers walk from Roxborough High School

File photo: Police officers walk from Roxborough High School near where multiple people were shot in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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News of Tuesday’s fatal Roxborough High shooting involving five members of the football team has teachers across Philadelphia again wondering whether and how to help students process yet another act of gun violence.

“Unfortunately, we’ve just had to deal with too many of them in recent years,” said Charlie McGeehan, a twelfth-grade social science teacher in Bella Vista. “It’s like we’re developing this really dark skill set.”

Police said Wednesday that they are searching for five shooters who ambushed a group of students leaving a football scrimmage between three high schools, Roxborough, Northeastern High School, and Boys’ Latin Charter School.

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One student, 14-year-old Nicholas Elizalde, who played for the Roxborough football team, but attended Walter B. Saul, a nearby magnet school, was killed. Another four players, all from Roxborough, were wounded.

Tape cordons off the area around the scene where multiple people were shot near a high school in Philadelphia
Tape cordons off the area around the scene where multiple people were shot near a high school in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

For many, the most horrifying part of Tuesday’s shooting was that it happened at 4:30 p.m. and on school property; players dropped football equipment as they ran.

McGeehan said for students the idea that after-school spaces are always safe had been shattered.

“It used to be if you weren’t out late at night you’d probably be OK. That used to be their impression, but their impression is different now,” McGeehan said. “There’s a real sense of, ‘Where am I safe’ and ‘What can I go to?’”

At MLK High School in Germantown, senior I’Lan Francis said the reaction has mostly been frustration around feeling unsafe at what used to be a normal activity.

“How is it fair that kids our age can get guns?” she said. “And how is it fair for innocent people to keep on losing their life over this?”

She’s still comfortable attending sports events, but said she won’t stay for long.

“Just leave as soon as it’s over,” she said. “There’s no reason to stand around.”

Francis has expressed some of her feelings about gun violence in a podcast episode produced with help from her communications teacher, Stephen Flemming.

Flemming said when he broached the subject with his students on Wednesday, many of them seemed unfazed.

“They weren’t downtrodden or anything,” he said. “The lack of response, and the lack of it being shocking anymore, disturbs the adults … we don’t want this to be normal.”

Investigators work the scene where multiple people were shot near a high school in Philadelphia
Investigators work the scene where multiple people were shot near a high school in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

A discussion tool

McGeehan, the Bella Vista teacher, said he started each of his classes Wednesday by walking students through the details of Tuesday’s shooting before giving them space to share their thoughts and feelings.

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In one of his classes, two students had personal connections to the shooting — one had a friend who was there, and another had a parent who works at the school and had just left.

Some usually quiet students had lots to say and shared personal stories about their experiences with gun violence, McGeehan said. Other students were silent.

Then he let them decide what they wanted to do next, providing them with options as part of a resource guide he had pulled together the night before with fellow members of the Racial Justice Committee.

The guide includes steps students can take if they want to take action, reflect, or take a break.

“After yesterday’s shooting at Roxborough, we all need different things right now,” the guide states. “Some of us may be hurting or angry. Some of us are recognizing a need to learn more. Some of us just want to escape. All of this is okay.”

McGeehan said many of his students are at a point where they feel like nothing is ever going to change.

“I just try to think about how I can push beyond that or get them to think differently or feel maybe some sense of hope,” he said. “But I don’t know, it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle for me. I think it’s a struggle for them.”

He said he’s doing what he can by creating a classroom where students feel supported and creating opportunities to keep the conversation about gun violence — particularly solutions —  going.

Before the shooting, the agenda for Thursday’s class was to discuss where Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate candidates stand on key campaign issues including crime and safety. The plan still stands, McGeehan said, but now they’ll hone in on gun violence policies specifically.

Addressing trauma

Mental health professionals say it’s crucial for young people to have an outlet to talk about gun violence, whether they’re having a reaction to an acute event or experiencing prolonged stress due to Philadelphia’s ongoing gun violence crisis.

A student who witnessed a fatal shooting firsthand will have different needs than a student who heard about a murder on the news, said Deshawnda Williams, a clinical social worker and CEO of the Philadelphia Citywide Coalition Project.

“That’s a whole other level of service that needs to be provided – because they have sounds and images playing in their head over and over and that’s a trauma,” Williams said.

Some reactions may be more subtle, and parents can look for signs and suggest their children seek support.

“You have a kid that doesn’t want to go to school,” she said. “You see signs of withdrawal, or signs of obsession with certain subjects, or they’re not making good decisions and you say ‘that’s not my kid.’ Understand that yes this IS your kid, but your kid is going through a traumatic experience.”

Robin Cogan, a Camden City school nurse who advocates for more mental health resources in schools, said young people have been experiencing isolation, toxic stress, and frustration since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Let’s understand that children’s behavior is a symptom,” she said. “There is a reason that kids are acting out. There is a reason that we have this horrific mental health crisis right now and we are all part of the problem and we’re part of the solution.”

She said teachers who open up safe spaces for teens and serve as mentors rather than disciplinarians could help keep students on a safe path. However, the Philadelphia School District is experiencing a shortage of both teachers and counseling staff.

If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.

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