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How a school in a free-fire zone went from lockdown to hopes up

Photo: Kevin McCorry/WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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For many Philadelphia students, profound violence and trauma underlie the rhythms of daily life – making academic success all the more difficult.

In one Philadelphia school this year, though, students and faculty took to the streets in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods to demonstrate for peace.

They got results.

Fourteen-year-old Grisel Pellot knows the sound of gunfire too well.

Growing up on a narrow stretch of rowhomes in North Philadelphia’s Fairhill section, she’s learned to anticipate the worst.

"I do get that in my head — us walking and a shootout happens and one of us get hurt, or one of the little kids get hurt. I’ve been in those places before," she said. "I had to save a baby."

Grisel tells of seeing a gun battle break out on one end of a block in her neighborhood, and then seeing a panicky young girl become separated from her baby boy on the other end.

The teenager risked her own safety to run back to grab the infant and return him safely to his mother.

"So I took him to his mom, and she said, ‘Thank you.’ And I said, ‘Anytime.’ And then I went home," said Grisel. "I didn’t come out for the rest of the day because I was scared."

Learning to live with lockdowns

Dealing with danger on the streets was one thing. Dealing with it during school hours was another.

Early this school year, classes for Grisel and her classmates at Fairhill’s Julia de Burgos Elementary School were interrupted by an unprecedented number of lockdowns after gunshots sounded in the streets nearby.

"Any time there’s a shooting and police are involved – so no one runs in, no one runs out – we have to lock the school down and make sure that everyone who’s in, stays in," explained principal Maritza Hernandez, who grew up in the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

When a school goes on lockdown, students are shepherded away from windows. They hide under desks or take cover in corners. The ordeal can last anywhere from 10 minutes to more than an hour.

At de Burgos, a K-8 school where it’s common for drug deals to occur within sight of the large windows, five lockdowns took place during the first six weeks of classes.

"We heard [the gunshots] come from drug sales or just rifts in the community with community members," said Hernandez.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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