This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Bill Hangley Jr.
As residents from across the region gathered in Philadelphia over the weekend to call for gun control, students from Philadelphia brought a warning for their suburban peers: Don’t let the push for safety turn your school into a prison. “Kids should start saying to their principals, ‘Let’s not make our schools safer by closing ourselves in and isolating ourselves,’” said Hanifah Brockman of West Philadelphia’s KIPP Dubois Collegiate Academy. “Let’s take on the mass problems to protect all schools, not just our schools.” Measures such as armed guards and metal detectors “make schools feel like they’re jails. We want students to feel safe,” Brockman said. Saturday’s March For our Lives event in Philadelphia was part of a nationwide effort to control gun sales and reduce violence. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest violence in schools and in communities of all kinds: urban, suburban and rural. At Philadelphia’s march, students from around the region took heart in the movement, which has galvanized young people and already netted some modest policy victories. “We’re really excited,” said Casey Zimmerman, a senior at Souderton Area High School. “We’re the next voters and we really just want to make our voices heard.” But students also said they’re well-aware of another, less-welcome trend: a growing push for stiffened security that would make suburban schools look like their urban counterparts. President Trump and the National Rifle Association have called for a policy of turning schools into “hardened sites.” Districts around Pennsylvania and the country have stepped up the use of armed guards and metal detectors. Lockdowns and searches are now commonplace in the city and suburbs alike. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, where students have spearheaded the surge of gun-control activism after a shooting left 17 dead at the school, district officials recently announced a plan to “fortify the campus” by “wanding” students with metal detectors and requiring them to wear clear plastic backpacks. And in one rural Pennsylvania district, officials have resorted to putting buckets of rocks in every classroom for students to hurl at a shooter – a policy that students at Saturday’s march could hardly believe was real. “That’s ridiculous,” snorted Ali Dunleavy, a freshman at Lower Merion High, as she prepared to join the thousands who would soon stream down Market Street to rally by the Delaware River. “It’s better than arming teachers with guns,” laughed Isaac Popkin, a Masterman High sophomore. For students in prosperous districts, the rising focus on such measures is a worrying sign that serious violence could be closer than they once thought. Mya Jennings, an 8th grader at West Chester’s Fugett Middle School, said she never used to worry that stress or a mental health issue might lead one of her own classmates to snap. “I don’t think it’s too serious at our school,” she said. “But then again, in Florida, they probably thought the same thing. “It’s really scary, overall, having to go to school thinking what would happen if our school got shot up.” But students who have lived with strict security say it can do as much harm as good. “Often, it results in the criminalization of students,” with harsh discipline meted out for even minor infractions, said Juanita Miller, a Central High alum and an organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union. Camryn Cobia, a Central student, PSU member, and veteran of countless trips through Philadelphia’s metal detectors, said suburban students should push back against such policies now, before they take root permanently. “I’d say to them, if you don’t feel comfortable with it, fight against it,” she said. Police control
Bill Hangley Jr.
Cobia was one of a host of students and advocates who took to the stage at Saturday’s rally, delivering a speech that focused on the dark side of safety policies.
“Students don’t deserve to be afraid of going to school on account that their school police officer might decide to pick on them that day,” she said.
Cobia cited an incident in which a Ben Franklin High student ended up in an officer’s “chokehold” after a conflict that started with a squabble over using the bathroom without a hall pass.
“Situations like this occur way too often,” Cobia said, and they can launch a student out of class and into a disciplinary process that can end in truancy, dropping out, or a trip down the proverbial “school to prison pipeline.”
For her and her fellow student union members, the key to safety in schools isn’t just keeping guns out, but keeping school discipline policies reined in. School police need to be effective and accountable, she said, and schools should offer counseling, mental health services, and “restorative justice” practices for those who break the rules.
“We deserve to walk into our schools knowing that we are respected and protected,” Cobia said.
Concern about aggressive security isn’t just in the city. Debbie Miller has three children in Montgomery County’s Spring-Ford Area School District, where a recent social media threat proved baseless – but disruptive.
“The Limerick Police Department had to patrol all week,” Miller said. “Everybody had to have their backpack checked, their cars searched, lockers searched. … This is ridiculous. Isn’t it hard enough to go to school and learn?”
Spring-Ford already employs regular active-shooter drills. “We bar the door and our teacher has a baseball bat, and we all hide,” said Miller’s son, 6th grader Tyler Zordan.
It is also considering adding armed guards. “The only way to stop somebody with a gun is somebody else with a gun,” argued one board member at a recent meeting.
Miller came to Saturday’s march to voice her frustration with measures she sees as unacceptably excessive. “These students don’t need to see their teacher with a baseball bat. They should be learning,” she said.
She also sees a particular threat to the district’s few minority students, who she believes will inevitably be unfairly targeted. That’s a concern shared by PSU’s Juanita Miller (no relation), who, like many advocates, worries that any increased focus on safety will end up disproportionately punishing minority students.
“This is a wonderful event, and I love the solidarity” between urban and suburban students and educators, said Miller as she marched in the bright sun down Market Street.
“But the same solidarity needs to be held with black and brown communities, because we’re often impacted by the reactions to events like this,” she said.
A welcome understanding
Bill Hangley Jr.
West Chester’s Silvi Howey said she’s getting that message loud and clear.
“When there’s violence against minorities, people aren’t taking [it] as seriously as violence against white kids,” said Howey, an 8th grader at Fugett Middle School.
“We could definitely all be working together to stop it,” said Howey. “We all believe there shouldn’t be all this violence. We should help people that might not have the resources that we have, and we should all use what we know to help each other.”
Philadelphia Student Union’s Cobia said she “definitely” welcomed that kind of rising awareness.
“If you’re not comfortable with your peers facing violence in communities where they’re supposed to be safe, then you should be speaking out against it,” she said. “Because we are one.”
KIPP’s Hanifah Brockman likewise welcomed signs that the Parkland shootings, horrific as they were, are helping forge an important understanding among students around the region.
“It just shows that [violence] is becoming a mass problem. It’s not just the inner city. It’s going to suburbs, too,” said Brockman, who said she lost two cousins in shootings. “It’s to let people know that no one is safe, no matter where you live.”
But one of Brockman’s teachers at KIPP, Sauce Leon, sounded a note of caution. There’s been plenty of dialogue at his school since Parkland, he said, and plenty of pessimism.
“A lot of kids are starting to feel like there’s nothing that can be done – that this is the reality of our world,” he said. “And that’s disheartening.”
Students at Saturday’s march supported a range of ideas for attacking the specific problem of gun control. Some supported background checks, and others suggested better mental-health screening or restrictions on sales of bump stocks or semiautomatic weapons like the AR-15.
But they all agreed: better to solve the broader problem of violence outside their schools than in it.
“Safety measures in schools is a good idea, but getting rid of guns is a better idea and will ultimately make schools safer,” said Lower Merion’s Dunleavy.
“I would feel really nervous if my teachers had guns … more unsafe than safe,” said Howey.
And as for rocks, she added, “I guess it’d be good to throw them. But we shouldn’t have to be worried about it in the first place.”
Notebook reporter and photographer Darryl C. Murphy contributed to this article.