Willard Elementary families speak out about the shooting outside the school

Jasmine Albury does not like to linger on the streets of Philadelphia. She and her five children are an “in-and-out family,” she says – they only leave the house for the things they need.

“We never play in parks,” said Albury, who lives in North Philadelphia. “There are shootings everywhere.

When three people were shot last week outside Willard Elementary — the school in Kensington where her son is in fourth grade — Albury felt hopeless, she said, but certainly not shocked. For many Philadelphia families, the city’s gun violence crisis means constant exposure to risk and trauma in everyday tasks as simple as getting kids to and from school.

No part of the city is as plagued by gun violence as Kensington, fueled largely by an open-air drug market and higher poverty rates. Law enforcement officials said dealers were selling heroin, crack cocaine and other drugs in more than 80 blocks of the neighborhood.

Willard is just a quarter mile from the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny, the area’s longtime drug trafficking hub. Previous Inquirer analysis found that within a five-minute walk of this intersection, more than 300 people have been shot since 2015, a rate that, per square mile, is 11 times higher than the city as a whole. . At this intersection and in the surrounding blocks, there are large encampments of homeless people. Drug addicts openly use drugs and fall into the streets. There is waste and suffering as far as the eye can see.

Willard is at the center of it all.

READ MORE: Shooting outside Willard Elementary overnight in Kensington leaves three injured, parents shaken

In the half square mile area surrounding the school, 25 people have been shot this year. At the corner of Kensington Avenue and East Orleans Street, where Albury gets off the SEPTA bus to Willard every morning, three people have been shot since January.

Over the summer, citing safety concerns, the police department denied many blocks of Kensington the permits required to host PlayStreets – areas temporarily closed to traffic so neighborhood children can enjoy summer games and a free meal. At least three of these blocks designated as too dangerous for children to play are only steps away from Willard.

The Philadelphia School District understands this reality.

Kevin Bethel, the school district‘s safety officer, said his office pays “great attention” to schools like Willard. The Bethel office has 24-hour school safety patrols in the Kensington area, around Willard and nearby schools, and in other hotspots. Philadelphia police have also identified 27 “safe zones” encompassing 40 schools throughout the city where uniformed officers have an additional presence at school check-in and out times.

The violence, however, Bethel said, has become “normalized” and the school district is trying to adapt.

“We have to be realistic,” he said. “Many of our schools are located in the most difficult communities in the country. As a result, we see this trauma, especially with our young children, with our families. »

Albury tries to protect her children from this trauma as best she can, because she knows how vulnerable they are. Albury herself was shot at age 20, hit in the hip by a stray bullet while waiting for ordered chicken wings at a restaurant on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Her injury required surgery, and she dropped out of college after the shooting.

“I tell my children, ‘I was shot while waiting for food. The same can happen to you,’ she said.

She usually drove her children to school, she said, because it was the safest option.

But his car died at the end of August.

His two eldest children now take SEPTA alone to their Kensington high schools. Meanwhile, Albury spends hours bringing his three youngest to their two schools, in Kensington and Frankford, crossing the city by bus, train and on foot, morning and afternoon.

When the stress of walking or relying on SEPTA becomes too much, she uses carpools. But the costs add up. She keeps her children close during the trip, aware of needles and drug paraphernalia littering the floor, then rushes home.

And the most recent shooting outside Willard, around 1 a.m. on August 31, happened hours before students and staff were due to arrive at the building for their third day of the school year. But when they did, the main entrance was a crime scene, a bullet lodged in the main hallway.

On the day of the shooting, Willard’s first grade teacher, Patricia McKelvey, spent part of the morning discussing the incident with her class.

McKelvey asked the 6 and 7 year olds if they knew what happened. Many raised their hands and wanted to talk about it. One girl was so upset she had to leave the classroom and go see the school counselor, she said.

“We talked about how we’re a family,” McKelvey said, “and I said to them, ‘When you’re at school with me, you’re safe.

Yet that exposure to trauma comes at a real cost, said Jasmine Allen, a clinician at the Uplift Center for Grieving Children, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.

“Knowing that you are in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of violence that forces you to be hypervigilant about how you move around the neighborhood,” said Allen, who leads peer support groups at district, charter and private schools in the city. town. “The effect is really significant – students are exposed to violence at a very young age and exposed to grief from violent deaths at a very young age as well.”

This stress can manifest itself in different ways in children, Allen said.

“It can show up in different behaviors, in kids struggling with schoolwork,” Allen said. “It’s hard to concentrate on your schoolwork when you’re dealing with a very dangerous neighborhood.”

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