Why Philly students are walking out

The recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida has sparked a firestorm of debate over gun regulations in the United States. On Wednesday, thousands of students at dozens of schools in the Philadelphia area are expected to walk out of schools for 17 minutes in honor of the 17 victims killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

But members of the Philadelphia Students Union (PSU) are pushing back against leaders like President Trump and legislators like Florida Gov. Rick Scott who have increasingly brought up the idea of arming school staff to protect them from apparently inevitable mass shootings.

“Increasing guns in places like schools that are supposed to be safe, nurturing environments for our children is a contradiction,” said Saudia Durrant, 25, a PSU organizer. “Thinking about black and brown youth and cultural distinctions, if a teacher were to feel threatened by something miscommunicated or misunderstood, who’s to say that teacher wouldn’t then shoot that student and say ‘I felt threatened in that moment?'”

The PSU will be joined by members of Black Lives Matter Philly, Juntos and elected officials for a “Student Vision on School Safety March,” starting Wednesday morning outside the School District and proceeding to City Hall.

Members of these groups collaboratively created a list of demands, including diverting budgets for school police officers to mental health resources; increasing guidance counselors and social workers, expanding restorative justice practices, protecting immigrant youth from enforcement actions by ICE around schools, and gun control that will not lead to racially discriminatory police actions.

“The national conversation is that students feel safer with armed teachers, but that’s for external threats. What about internal problems?” Durrant asked. “Whenever there’s a been a question to the SRC [soon-to-end School Reform Commission] or School District, ‘Why is it that we don’t have more guidance counselors or lunchroom monitors or classroom aides?’ the response is, ‘Budget cuts, we have to make cuts.’ … But there’s always enough money for school police officers. So it’s a contradiction, where money and resources are being put into people trained to deal with criminals and not people trained to deal with youth.”

Durrant said PSU members believe that practices like “restorative justice,” and conflict mediation, without the presence of a school police officer, can lead to better results for young people.

She added that PSU members support the Parkland student-activists’ calls for new legislation “100 percent.” But as students in a city where mass shootings are almost underheard of and gun violence is constant, they hope their voices will be heard, too.

“It doesn’t make sense that young people directly impacted by decision makers aren’t being asked ‘What do you think we can do to improve your school?'” she said. “They’re being left out of the conversation.”

Day of Walk-outs

The School District of Philadelphia has asked principals to designate “safe areas” for students participating in the walkouts on March 14, most of which start at 10 a.m.. School District students participating in a 17-minute walk-out will not face disciplinary action for leaving school, officials said.

“Schools will neither encourage nor discourage student walkouts, nor will we prevent students from participating or discipline them if they do,” school superintendent William Hite wrote in a letter to families issued last week. “Regular activities will continue during the walkout, and students participating are expected to re-enter the building following the walkout.”

But activists with Juntos, a Latino community organization, released a statement on Tuesday criticizing Hite, saying that no student should be punished for participating beyond 17 minutes. 

“We feel that by limiting us to only 17 minutes, our voices are actively being silenced. This is not real support,” organizers with Juntos wrote. “Saying you respect our right to protest while penalizing students who march beyond those 17 minutes is not support. Threatening students with 0’s on tests if they march is not support.”

The Student Vision for School Safety March will begin at the School District of Philadelphia, 440 N Broad St., at 11:30 a.m. on March 14 and end at City Hall.

Visit actionunited.org for the full national list of planned walk-outs on March 14.

A separate event, the planned ‘March for Our Lives,’ is scheduled to take place on March 24 in Washington D.C.

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