Safe paths and safety zones — Philly schools attempting to curb gunfire

School District of Philadelphia headquarters on N. Broad Street.
Jack Tomczuk

Philadelphia’s public schools are taking steps to prevent gunfire outside of buildings in the wake of several high-profile shootings, including the killing of a 13-year-old student earlier this month.

Additional police officers starting getting deployed Monday to 25 “safety zones,” encompassing a total of 38 schools, and plans are in the works to pay community members to stand along corridors during student arrival and dismissal.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said the need for additional action was “becoming increasingly clear,” amid a worrying trend in shootings and homicides around the city.

“It’s clear that we’re seeing more brazen behavior in our communities that is impacting our students and, unfortunately, impacting our schools,” he said Thursday.

An 18-year-old student at Philadelphia Learning Academy South accidentally shot himself in the leg last Friday after sneaking a gun into the school.

Earlier last week, a gunman opened fire on a group of students near Abraham Lincoln High School, wounding a 16-year-old boy and killing a 65-year-old driver who happened to be passing through the area.

Officers at the scene immediately arrested a suspect, a 21-year-old man now facing murder charges.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite speaks Thursday, Oct. 28.  Jack Tomczuk

On the morning of Oct. 8, as students were arriving at nearby Rhodes Elementary School, a 13-year-old boy was fatally shot while sitting inside a car with classmates on the 3100 block of N. Judson Street in North Philadelphia.

Authorities have issued an arrest warrant for 29-year-old Safeeq Lewis in the case. He has not been apprehended.

In addition, 178 people under the age of 18 have been shot since the start of the year, according to the Community College of Philadelphia’s Center for Gun Violence Reporting.

“The reality is that we all — our elected leaders, our school leaders, our community leaders, our parents, all of us — have a duty and responsibility to make our schools safe,” the school district’s safety chief, Kevin Bethel, told reporters Thursday.

Bethel, a former deputy commissioner in the Philadelphia Police Department, said he has secured just under $1 million in grants to implement a three-year pilot program mirroring an initiative used by schools in Chicago.

Members of community organizations will be tasked with lining the streets around schools, particularly those with a history of violence or other disturbances. They will receive a small stipend.

The “Safe Path” program will be rolled out at four high schools — Motivation, Lincoln, Roxborough and Sayre — hopefully before the end of the academic year, officials said.

Ambassadors will wear vests and have a direct line to police, Bethel said, adding that he believes their presence will help deter criminal activity.

School District of Philadelphia Safety Chief Kevin Bethel speaks about the need to address gunfire near schools.  Jack Tomczuk

A requests-for-proposals document should be released in the near future to determine which neighborhood or city-wide groups will participate in the program. The hope is that the effort will be expanded to other schools, Bethel said.

Separately, the district has collaborated with the PPD to identify 25 zones near schools to boost deployment during certain times of the day. The areas, Bethel said, have high levels of gun violence.

“I’ve always said the fear of crime is worse than the crime itself,” he said. “And we now have our children going to school, and our parents going to school and our school leaders scared. That’s just not acceptable.”

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