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A Philly school helps its students to process — and speak out against — gun violence

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

As neighborhood gun violence has increased in Philadelphia, so too has the burden on the city's schools. More than 107 students have been shot so far this school year. Twenty-three have died. Even if the trauma happens off school grounds, it ripples across classrooms. And WHYY's Aubri Juhasz visited one Philadelphia public school where administrators are speaking out against the violence and teaching their students to do the same.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood is at the center of the city's opioid epidemic. Here, people buy, sell and use drugs out in the open, and there's gun violence. Hundreds of people were shot in the greater area last year, including more than a dozen children and teens. In the middle of all of this sits a gray brick building with a ring of purple paint and a fenced-in yard that's impeccably clean.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning. Good morning.

JUHASZ: It's a school - Gloria Casarez Elementary.

DONNY: A bullet does not have a name on it.

JUHASZ: Donny, a fifth grader at Casarez, talks about gun violence with a clarity that's shocking for a 10-year-old.

DONNY: If a guy is mad and - I'm about to kill somebody. I'm about to kill somebody. No way you're about to do this to me. And they buy a gun - boom. When they buy a gun, they see the guy. He shoots him. My family's having dinner, and that bullet shoots through our window, and it probably hits one of my family members - my brother or my sister. I have to worry about that.

JUHASZ: Many children in Kensington have lost friends and family to gun violence, and all of them have sheltered from gunfire at home or at school, where lockdowns are common. Assistant Principal Julio Nunez says it's important for schools to make space for students to talk about the violence they're experiencing.

JULIO NUNEZ: We have to let them know that it is not normal so that it's not conditioning for them. If they grow up around violence, we know that they'll see that as normal because they may not know what the alternative is.

JUHASZ: That's why each day at Casarez starts with a morning meeting. It's a chance for students to share how they're feeling and for adults to remind them violence shouldn't be accepted as normal.

In Rosa Arnold's fourth grade classroom, her students clean up breakfast...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIR SCRAPING ON FLOOR)

JUHASZ: ...Push in their chairs and form a circle. They talk about what they did over the weekend, and then Nunez tells them the prompt for the day.

NUNEZ: When was the last time you saw or witnessed something that was violent - something was not right that was happening anywhere in the community? When was the last time, and how did it make you feel?

JUHASZ: He gives them a minute to think about the question while counselors stand ready to offer support. Almost all of the children have something to say.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Last time, it was a shootout at this park...

JUHASZ: One student says there was a shootout at the park when he went to play basketball with his mom. In another classroom, it's 10-year-old Yoleiny's turn to speak. She talks about a shooting that happened right in front of her house.

YOLEINY: We just saw a guy run and then someone laying on the floor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're so sorry we didn't hear it.

NUNEZ: When did that happen?

YOLEINY: Yesterday.

JUHASZ: As the students share, Nunez repeats two things over and over again - violence isn't normal.

NUNEZ: It's not normal. Don't ever think it is.

JUHASZ: And school is the safest place to be. Ultimately, the conversation is about making students feel powerful, not powerless. It's a lesson Yoleiny says she understands.

YOLEINY: Like Mr. Nunez said, what do you have a voice for if you're not using it?

JUHASZ: Yoleiny is part of a group of students who, with the support of their teachers, have become their own advocates. Last year, the students led a successful campaign to get the school's pothole-filled yard repaved. And recently, they held a mayoral debate so they could ask the candidates questions face-to-face. Here's 10-year-old Jeremiah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEREMIAH: How will you prevent or at least decrease the level of gun violence across the city and make it harder for criminals to get guns? We just want to be safe and learn.

JUHASZ: The school's principal, Awilda Balbuena, wants the same thing. She says a lot of work goes into keeping Casarez safe, especially as shootings in the area have increased.

AWILDA BALBUENA: I get teary-eyed because I know, like, I can go for a walk with my son around my block. We could both get on our bikes, go for a bike ride and stay very healthy that way. And then I know that our children are not doing those things, and it really pains me that my students don't get that.

JUHASZ: Casarez offers after-school activities through outside partners, but the programs only have room for a small number of kids. And there's a waiting list. Balbuena says the school would like to offer summer programs but can't, since its more than 100-year-old building doesn't have central air. Assistant Principal Nunez says district officials are doing a better job responding to gun violence than they have in the past, but that they need to think about the long-term consequences of some policies. He says the more negative experiences a child has at school, the less likely they are to keep coming.

NUNEZ: So by the time they get to a place where it is their choice to walk to school, they're choosing to opt out. And it is because of the quality of services that we provided or failed to provide.

JUHASZ: In Philadelphia, 14% of students dropped out of school during the 2020-2021 school year, which is the most recent data available. Balbuena says it's time for educators to respond to the city's gun violence more directly.

BALBUENA: I think this is how we got here. I think it was passing the buck to someone else. It's someone else's problem. And we see here, at Gloria Casarez, it is our problem.

JUHASZ: She says doing nothing is a way of condoning the violence, and that's unacceptable.

For NPR News, I'm Aubri Juhasz in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aubri Juhasz | WHYY