W. Philly High School confronts violence and Brett Levinson Photos by Evelyn Hockstein Looming over 47th and Walnut streets, West Philadelphia High School's gothic structure dominates this portion of the Philadelphia skyline, occupying an entire block of urban landscape. Arched windows and stylized friezes create a somber and gloomy presence -- and random security checks by the Philadelphia Police do not help to ease the school's imposing image. Officials have tightened general security at the school in direct response to the non-fatal shooting of a 16-year-old West Philly High student three weeks ago, according to Assistant Principal Thomas Dougherty. And for University students who tutor and work with West Philly High students, the shooting provided reason to feel apprehensive, although the programs will continue to operate. "There have been four instances of serious violence in the Philadelphia school system in the last quarter of a century," Dougherty said. "The recent incident is the first of its kind at West Philadelphia High School and I'm going to make sure it is the last." In the wake of the incident, seven additional security officers were assigned to the building, bringing the total number of officers to 10, Dougherty said. Students are required to carry identification cards with them throughout the day. Those found without their cards are sent home, or must pay $3 for the purchase of a replacement, students said. Visitors have restricted access to the building and can enter the school only through the Walnut Street entrance where they must sign in and present identification to a security guard. "We are going to be more cognizant of large groups of people coming in from the city," Dougherty said. He explained that the two suspects involved in the January 16 incident -- identified as teenagers not enrolled in the school -- entered the building during lunch time. The suspects, who had accosted other students in the school, then fled the building, police said. Omar was rushed to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia where he underwent surgery for a gunshot wound to his stomach. He is now recuperating at home, Dougherty said. Many students said they did not know about the shooting until Principal Florence Cambell made an announcement over the school's public address system. "It came as a total surprise," West Philly High senior Tiffany Carmichael said. "I saw [Omar] lying on the ground and then everything started happening." "[It's unfortunate that] it takes someone to get hurt for [the school] to beef-up security like it is supposed to be," Carmichael added. Dougherty noted that, prior to the incident, it was impossible for the normal complement of three security guards to patrol the entire school. Even now, he added, the 36 doors in the building must remain unlocked in order to comply with fire regulations, so there is really no way of preventing students from letting outsiders inside. According to Philadelphia School District Information Specialist Paul Hanson, West Philly High -- in conjunction with the Philadelphia Police department -- conducts random security checks with a hand-held metal detector. Students said that two such checks have been conducted since the shooting. Some of the students complained that the checks were ineffective because the police cars in front of the school forewarned those students carrying weapons. Carmichael said she thought the police should have conducted regular checks for an extended period of time after the shooting, in order to provide a real deterrent. But West Philly High Dean Sandra Bobroff explained that "it takes too long to do hand checks every day." "We would have to start running on a special bell schedule," Bobroff said, adding that if the students felt the checks were necessary, the school would attempt to meet their request. But she added that the school does not have a hostile environment. According to Bobroff, the school does not even have the funds to make the noted changes in security. Therefore, it is left to the school's administrators to establish order. Dougherty said many of the problems at West Philly High are typical of inner-city schools. He said the ratio of seniors to freshmen is one to four. The 75 percent difference can be attributed to both drop-outs and those students who go on to magnet-type programs throughout the city. Also, three percent of the school's population include students assigned to the school by correctional institutions. Despite these facts, Dougherty claims West Philly High "really is and was a safe environment." "Superintendent David Hornbeck has implemented a lot of proactive measures –– such as peer mediation and a system of pre-suspension, which involves the parents of a student before a student is officially suspended," Dougherty added. The staff is encouraged to keep in contact with parents by making phone calls. And a written profile of each student's progress is sent home monthly, Dougherty said. Blackwell said that she has gotten calls from concerned parents "every day." "We have a problem," she added. "I'm still concerned that people were able to get into the school." "The school is considered a safe haven for a large population of the students," Dougherty said. "For them, the main safety concern involves the transportation to and from school." This concern is often the justification given by students found in possession of weapons in the school, he added. "Many students are reluctant to participate in athletics or other extracurricular activities, because they don't want to take the risk involved with traveling home later," Dougherty explained. "Even a two-block walk can be dangerous." But some students disagreed. "This neighborhood is not dangerous," West Philly High freshman Marc Marshal said, adding that the press only shows the high school in a negative light. Several University students are involved with the school as participants in the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project. Tutors work with students who are planning to go to college on problems they might find on the Scholastic Assesment Test. Bea Fwedlow, assistant director of the Program for Student Community Involvement, said the coordinators of the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project started talking last week about steps they may want to take in response to the shooting. "This semester, I've witnessed more and more students expressing a preference to tutor on campus, rather than in the schools," Fwedlow said. "A number of them have raised safety concerns, with a few mentioning the shooting in particular," she added. But Fwedlow emphasized that the University students will not be sent into unsafe environments. "We will be making a site visit some time soon to make sure that the school environment is a place that is both safe and conducive to learning," she said. "If need be, we would be willing to pull our tutors out, but there are many steps that come before that. We have safety in mind, but we don't want to abandon the schools." "A lot of universities are pulling their tutors out of the school, but we disagree with that," said College junior Sam Wu, who leads the team of West Philly High tutors. Wu added that he believed the shooting itself was an isolated event within the school. College freshman John Stephens, who has tutored for a semester at the high school, said he has never felt threatened while at West Philly High. "Of course some of the kids are bad or loud, but that's natural," he said, adding that all the students involved in the tutoring program seemed enthusiastic about learning. Stephens pointed to the "crime present on the University's own campus every day." "If we feel safe enough to be on campus, there's no reason why we should be worried at West Philly," he added. But College senior Erica Johnson, who was a student at West Philly High, said the crime situation on Penn's campus is at a different level. "I am probably biased, because I became desensitized to the situation, but to hear some Penn students talk, it sounds like we are living in a war zone," she said. Johnson contrasted the sentiments at the University with those of her peers in high school. "I remember a time at West when a gun fell out of a guy's bag during class," she said. "People hardly noticed." Wharton junior Greg Passeri, who began working with students at West Philly High this semester, said he felt "somewhat apprehensive." He added that he was not concerned for his own safety, but rather "that it will be a difficult environment for learning." Nursing freshman Tara Nolan, who is also involved with the tutoring programs, expressed similar sentiments. "I come from a small town in Maine with a population of 9,000, so this is all very new to me," she said. "I am excited to be working with the kids, but I am also apprehensive. "But if we were all scared, nothing would get done," she added. "I feel that I am taking a risk, but in the end, the results will make it worth it –– people will get into college."Comments powered by Disqus
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