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Philadelphia superintendent announces new safety measures after shootings near schools

A man in a dark suit and white shirt leans to his right while a person holds a phone near his face in front of a plant a blue wall.

Superintendent Tony Watlington announced new measures intended to improve Philadelphia students’ safety in the wake of school shootings near Roxborough High School and Overbrook High School during the 2022-23 school year.

Dale Mezzacappa/Chalkbeat

In the wake of shootings outside two high schools this year, Superintendent Tony Watlington has announced new measures by the district to improve student safety, which he called “priority one.” 

Watlington announced Friday that the district will add 12 schools over the next two years to the “safe paths” program that provides “extra supervision for students traveling to and from school.” The program, which involves community members as well as local businesses, currently operates at six locations. 

In addition, the district will use $600,000 from a grant from Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to pay for more city police around some school buildings “that warrant an increased police presence,” Watlington said. 

And the district will increase mental health services for students and staff, working with the city to give students in the sixth through 12th grades access to mental health counseling through the online provider Kooth. That will be in addition to in-person services already available.

Speaking to reporters Friday Watlington said that parents, the community at large, and law enforcement need to come together “to get our arms around the violence problem. We can and must win this violence war.” 

High-profile shootings near school grounds have traumatized students and others this year, and have underscored the gun violence plaguing the city and its young people. In September, five students were shot — one fatally — outside Roxborough High School after a football scrimmage. Police have arrested four teenagers and an adult in connection with the incident. 

Then, on the day before Thanksgiving, four students were shot after an early dismissal a few blocks from Overbrook High School. There are no arrests yet in that case.

Watlington said he is still working out details with the police department about increasing law enforcement’s presence in the vicinity of schools.

“We know that we just have to have more police officers around some of our schools. So we’re working with the Philadelphia Police Department to identify where are the places we need to expand first,” he  said.

The police department, like the district, is facing a staff shortage. But Watlington said that they are working together to deal with the “challenges” of vacancies and attrition among teachers and officers. 

In general, when it comes to student safety, Watlington noted that he plans to collaborate closely with the district’s employee unions. 

Watlington conceded that Kooth, the online mental health provider, “doesn’t replace what a traditional counselor does,” he said. 

On his summer “listening and learning tour” and visits to more than 50 schools, he said students told him that the counselor-student ratio doesn’t afford them the opportunity to see guidance counselors when they need to. He also wants to expand peer counseling programs and zero in on the needs of individual schools.

The district’s student-to-counselor ratio is 357 to 1 this year, an improvement on last year’s ratio of 371 to 1. 

Watlingon said he plans to study attendance and dropout data. When students attend school daily and don’t drop out, “they are less likely to be the victims or the perpetrators of violence,” he said. 

Watlington said that on his visits to schools, most were operating smoothly, but that he also  witnessed struggles with student attendance and behavior. 

“The goal right now is to keep children safe,” he said.

Although his announcement Friday focused on safety, Watlington continues to work on his broader strategic plan for the district that’s due next year.  

Watlington said that he is seeking 25 parents and guardians to form a council to advise him on what “what do we need to stop doing and to start doing” to make Philadelphia “the fastest improving large school district in America.” 

Applications to be on the parent advisory council will be taken on the district website starting on Dec. 5 and running through Dec. 18. Once finalized, the group will start work in January. 

Watlington said he plans to “defund things that don’t work,” while investing in things that do. 

“We will not just be asking for a blank check,” he said. 

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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