Philly parents, educators wrestle with culture of gun violence in wake of Texas tragedy

The mass shooting in Texas comes amid Philadelphia’s ongoing gun violence crisis

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — By the time class started Wednesday at Philip H. Sheridan Elementary School in Kensington, many of the kindergarten-through-fourth graders had already heard about the tragedy in Texas.

Assistant Principal Julio Nuñez said after the morning announcements, adults made a special effort to ask students how they were feeling.

“One of the challenges that the kids have when they’re hearing bad news is that they feel powerless just like adults, but they don’t have coping mechanisms,” said Nuñez.

The school shooting in Uvalde, in which an 18-year-old gunman killed at least 19 children and two teachers, left parents and educators across the country grappling to find the right words Wednesday. The incident adds to a series of mass killings at churches, schools and stores in the past few decades. Tuesday’s was the deadliest shooting at a U.S. school since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.

In Kensington, the weight of the latest incident echoes the daily trauma left by Philadelphia’s ongoing gun violence crisis.

“We’re very honest about what happened,” said Nuñez. “The kids in our neighborhood are very aware of what is happening around them.”

Some students at Sheridan asked their teachers: “Am I safe inside my school?”

Nuñez said he also asked that question of his fourth graders Wednesday. On a one to five scale, they responded with fours and fives. But when he asked how safe they felt walking to school, he said there were a lot more ones.

In recent weeks there have been several incidents of rampant gun violence in daylight near school buildings. On Monday, three students in Nicetown were shot as they walked outside a neighboring elementary school just after the afternoon dismissal bell.

“The level of violence and trauma that children are experiencing on a regular basis is just so abnormal,” said Qiana Pray, a School District of Philadelphia counselor at the Academy at Palumbo.

As a counselor, she often has open dialogues about the drumbeat of gun violence happening across the city.

“We realize that one life lost to gun violence is too many lives lost,” she said, “and having it happen repeatedly in our city is awful. Then when we hear about it happening in other places, it’s like, ‘Oh God, this is really awful.’”

Violence is never an easy conversation to have with kids, but she says it’s a necessary one.

“Don’t be afraid to have that conversation. You talking about gun violence is not enticing them,” Pray advised. “You need to be very clear [that] you are not accepting of that and you wouldn’t tolerate it and you wouldn’t want those things in your house, so our kids know how we feel.”

Sheridan school counselor Delethine Coleman encourages students to cope by talking with someone they trust.

“Some of them have said, ‘I talk to my parents. Sometimes I’m not able to talk to anyone else because I’m not comfortable with sharing what’s personally going on in my life,’” said Coleman.

“We cannot be blind to what is happening outside of our school doors, but we tell them we are here to keep you safe as much as possible.”

Coleman added that as a counselor, she looks for signs of withdrawal in a student who may be bullied, and she tells students it’s important to respect classmates' feelings and talk over any perceived disagreements.

‘Is this the day my kid’s school gets shot up?’

Across the city Wednesday, the news of the Texas shooting had parents conflicted about their normal school drop-off routine.

A parent named Ashley, who declined to give her last name, hugged and kissed her 6-year-old son and watched him join the other kids at Fitzpatrick Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia. She hadn’t talked to him about what happened more than 1,800 miles away in a school just like his in Uvalde. Not yet.

“I didn’t mention that to him because I didn’t want him to worry about that coming to school,” she said. “It scares me to death. I want to keep him home but I can’t. We just do the best we can.”

Matt Cywinski also dropped off his 11-year-old son at Fitzpatrick Wednesday, as did Frederick Price with his sixth-grader.

Both fathers tried to be calm and pragmatic.

“[Told] him to be prepared,” said Cywinski. “Don’t do anything stupid if anything like that happens. Don’t try to be a hero. Listen to the teachers and try to stay safe.”

“Bad people do bad things, for the most part,” Price explained to his daughter. “Everyone is not like that. And, be on the lookout — so be cautious about everything around you, your surroundings.”

Clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman has three children of her own.

“I don’t think there’s words as a parent to be able to describe the emotions that we’re having,” she said in response to the Uvalde tragedy. “As a clinical psychologist, I can tell you that it shakes our core of what we believe in our society to be safe.”

For many people in the region, the news of the massacre feels numbing, a reminder of the many similar incidents that have punctuated moments of their lives for decades.

Kathryn Lezyndki said Wednesday she had the same feeling from a mass shooting 23 years ago.

“I was a young kid when Columbine happened. The same thing’s happening, and nothing’s changed. When is it going to change?“ she said. “Nobody has any idea of when it’s going to change, because lawmakers don’t want to make a change, it seems.”

The news hit mother-to-be Proma Debnath hard.

“It’s getting really, really scary,” she admitted. “You can’t protect them from everything, but you also don’t want to think, ‘Is this the day that my kid’s school gets shot up?’“

Debnath further explained that words fail in sharing her upset feelings about these tragedies, the feelings that she would express to her child.

“It’s still just thoughts and prayers,” she said, “and nothing has been done.”

In Harrisburg Wednesday, a move to advance a bill to ban assault weapons failed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, nearly along party lines.

In D.C., Democrats are arguing that the latest massacre should push lawmakers to find bipartisan consensus on gun control reforms. GOP leaders have been emphasizing the need for greater school security and measures to address mental health. Although Democrats control Congress, there’s little sign the incident will spur enough support among Republicans to garner the 60 votes needed to pass a bill in the U.S.

Even if parents are exasperated, Zuckerman, the psychologist, said it’s important for kids to see parents upset. It validates their emotions and gives them emotional cues to know how they can respond, and that it’s OK to respond.

“If [parents] feel that this messed up their sense of safety as an adult, they have to understand that their child will be scared more so as they are, because they don’t have as much an understanding as this,” she explained. “Ask them what they know. Ask them what their friends are talking about. Make it a very safe environment somewhere in your house where you can have this open conversation with them.

“You don’t want to ignore the topic, even if it’s uncomfortable. As a parent, you have to be willing to have an uncomfortable discussion with your child. If you wait till they’re comfortable, you’ll never do it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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