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Philly schools aim to lower shootings involving kids with conflict resolution skills


In Philadelphia last year, 217 children were shot. Now, to put that into perspective, that's more cases than in New York City, which has more than five times Philly's population. WHYY's Sammy Caiola looks at the School District of Philadelphia's effort to keep students safe when school lets out.


SAMMY CAIOLA, BYLINE: When the school day ends at West Philadelphia High School, Malik Smith puts on his blue vest with one goal, disperse the crowd.

MALIK SMITH: Kids is all together now. They moving in a larger pack. They're excited that school is over. And if there's any tension, that's usually when it's going to take place.

CAIOLA: At the start of this school year, the School District of Philadelphia rolled out the Safe Path program. It puts trained adults, like Smith, on the perimeters of six high schools to try to break up fights and keep an eye out for potential danger in the surrounding streets.

SMITH: After school, you want them to be able to just travel home safely, get to and from safely. That's our whole goal. So if somebody needed to be walked to the bus, if someone needs just to be walked to the car, you know, whatever it is, we try to take care of this in our parameters.

CAIOLA: Safe Path is modeled after a similar program in Chicago serving elementary, middle and high schools. Their version has reduced violent crime in the areas around those schools by 14% since it started in 2012. That's according to an analysis of Chicago Police Department data. In Philadelphia, the district hasn't released numbers on whether there have been fewer shootings around Safe Path schools since the pilot began. But they're expanding it to 12 more schools, including Dobbins Technical High School. It's in North Philadelphia, one of the city's gun violence hot spots, where cracked sidewalks connect vacant lots, boarded up homes and corner liquor stores. Seventeen-year-old Taahzje Ellis is a student at Dobbins. He and his friend, Synceir Thorton, are both part of an after-school media program.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: Welcome. Welcome. Sit, and then you'll do apologies and then introductions in that order. Hey, is there more of you?

CAIOLA: They've been working on a film about what it's like to grow up around gun violence.

TAAHZJE ELLIS: I live so close to it that it can just affect me at any time. Like, I can just be walking down the street and get caught up in it. And that's something that you kind of have to think about a lot.

CAIOLA: Taahzje says he doesn't feel safe in his neighborhood or at school. His friend, Synceir, says he tries to stay out of the fights that happen between students. He doesn't know what they're about.

SYNCEIR THORTON: To be honest, it is 100% random. We have no idea because, mostly, we don't know. We don't know the people. We don't know what it's about. And in my opinion, it's better if I don't find out.

CAIOLA: Taahzje says it usually starts with an argument. Social media can make it worse. And with guns being so available, it can easily become fatal.

ELLIS: Like, there's a chance you might die outside of school just because you fought someone.

CAIOLA: He says gun violence goes deeper than just arguments. Students are struggling with poverty and hunger. They're frustrated with the government and the COVID-19 pandemic. And they don't feel heard.

ELLIS: I think it's definitely worth looking past just, like, oh, this kid has a gun - you know, let's do something about it - and thinking about, why does this kid have a gun? Why would someone so young resort to something like this is the big question.

CAIOLA: Dozens of students walked out of Dobbins in December to protest what they described as unsafe conditions inside and outside the school, like people who don't attend Dobbins entering the building and a lack of security guards. Eric Rosa is assistant director of restorative programs and services with the school district. He says Safe Path is designed as a response to those issues.

ERIC ROSA: You know, we're looking to reduce the rate of violence experienced by our students. We're looking to increase their feelings of safety and security.

CAIOLA: It's not just a matter of increasing security. Rosa says Safe Path monitors and some school staff get special training on how to talk to students about violent behavior.

ROSA: They can learn foundations in mentoring. They can learn different techniques in mediation and conflict resolution.

CAIOLA: It's something that Malik Smith, the Safe Path monitor at West Philadelphia High School, takes seriously.

SMITH: It's our job to provide them with that. They might not get that at home. They might not get that in the community that they live in.

CAIOLA: On a recent afternoon, he asked a group of kids about their dreams. They were snacking on bags of chips while they talked.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Well, my dream, I want to become a basketball player because I was playing since second grade.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: My dream is to be a dermatologist. If that don't work out, I'm going to be a - what's it called? - a hairstylist. Next?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: My dream is I want to be a nurse because I like to help people out.

CAIOLA: They think they have a chance at achieving those dreams if they can lay low and avoid the threats that surround them every day. Smith wants to see it happen.

SMITH: No one can stop you from getting an A. No one can stop you from, you know, making your practices, for the most part, and giving your all on the field. So if you do those things, I believe each and every one of our children can go to the next level.

CAIOLA: He's part of a nonprofit focused on Black youth that's helping the district get monitors like him in place. They'll need to find dozens more adults to supplement the new expansion.

For NPR News, I'm Sammy Caiola in Philadelphia.

MARTÍNEZ: WHYY's Aubri Juhasz contributed to this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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