Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic is a crisis. Five months into 2022, Philadelphia has already experienced 165 deadly shootings (that’s more than one every day). Nationally, students are struggling with depression, trauma and other mental health burdens. We see this with our students too, some of whom are also managing the stress of fearing for their lives.
At Belmont Charter Network, we know it takes a village to raise a child. But as educators, we need a bigger village. What happens in a community subsequently comes into a school, so we need all hands on deck to support our kids.
Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier, who recently ducked from gunfire while attending an event in her district, said tackling this problem might include everything from policing to trauma support. “Or safe youth activities for as many hours as we are able to during the day,” she told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Programs that offer stipends for young men not to shoot and make it financially worth people’s whiles to get out of the cycle of violence.”
Many of our students are anxious about commuting to and from school. Others go home and fear what lies outside their front doors. Some of our students already know the difference between gunshots and fireworks. Many come to school with recurring trauma from the direct impact that gun violence has on their lives, and from the lockdowns that occur all too often during the school day due to community violence.
In Belmont Charter Network schools, we strive to train and develop staff through a trauma-informed lens. We believe real growth begins when you meet students where they are, and our programming reflects that: each of our schools offers an “Out-of-School-Time” (OST) enrichment program that provides a community-centered atmosphere aimed at giving students a comfortable place to go when the school day ends. Students who join school-sponsored extracurricular activities are less likely to become involved with community violence, so we try to give them as many choices as possible — gaming club, STEM, wrestling, basketball, track, dance, theater and cosmetology — so they can stay engaged in hobbies that speak to their passions.
Young Philadelphians need quality education, strong after-school and neighborhood programs, and they need to feel safe. We must work harder than ever to build a village for students beyond the one we’ve created in our schools, one that includes help from others in the community.
We also know that students who witness gun violence are more likely to miss school, so we make it our responsibility to remove barriers that keep students from making it to class in the morning. Belmont recently formed a truancy intervention team because our priority is to build safe corridors to help students navigate those obstacles. In the classroom, we integrate social and emotional learning into regular lesson plans.
We have conducted extensive community outreach to parents, caregivers, students, community members, anti-violence nonprofits and local law enforcement officers. Through open conversations, regular morning meetings between staff and students as they arrive at school, and ongoing town halls hosted by our staff, we utilize the tools we have to gauge students’ emotion and build trust.
We’ve learned from our conversations with students that schools must combine community safety and public engagement to help students feel heard and supported. We cannot watch this crisis unfold without an appropriate response. We must play our part as a school to forge meaningful relationships with local law enforcement officers. Schools and law enforcement alike must use empathy to better understand how to lean on each other as partners. Our students and families are asking this of us, and we must deliver.
Young Philadelphians need quality education, strong after-school and neighborhood programs, and they need to feel safe. We must work harder than ever to build a village for students beyond the one we’ve created in our schools, one that includes help from others in the community. It isn’t enough for only the school to work on creating a safe learning environment inside the school.
We need the support of the local community, like local businesses who can see what’s happening in the community and offer protection to our students. We need each and every neighbor to be committed to reporting unsafe activities. We need local government officials to advocate for and support legislation that protects our community.
Please join us.
Christine Gullotti is Head of Middle School at Belmont Charter Network. Dante Banks is Assistant Director of Attendance & Truancy for Belmont Charter Network.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
THE CITIZEN PODCAST ON GUN VIOLENCE IN PHILADELPHIA
Primary school children in class. Photo by CDC on Unsplash