Violence in schools is on the rise, and it’s not just in Philadelphia. Suburbs and small cities across the region are seeing the same issues in their public schools. Since students came back from the Covid lockdowns, they have been living through a second pandemic — a plague of Philadelphia school violence. Schools seem unable — or unwilling — to do anything about it.
Bullying and violence in schools is spilling across the region. There have been verified incidents in many communities in the area, including Reading School District in Berks County, Norristown Area School District in Montgomery County, West Chester Area School District in Chester County, and Upper Darby School District in Delaware County.
Just last week at Reading High School, two students were able to enter the building with a gun. A third student opened the door to allow them to enter. Thankfully, the students were apprehended and no one was hurt. But incidents like this are incredibly frightening and unsettling for parents, teachers, and students.
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Sara Torres-Viera is a parent of a high school student at Reading. She warned administrators about the possibility of an incident like this back in May 2022. She, along with other concerned parents, sent a series of questions related to safety and security to the district administration. One of their questions was, “what type of building safety measures are in place considering the 35 unattended, unlocked doors that are specifically at the high school?”
According to Torres-Viera, “The question was never answered until Thursday, April 28, 2023, a child opened one of those 35 unattended doors to allow in the building another child with a firearm. We have for over a year demanded answers that are never given, to the point that we don’t believe there’s a plan to keep our children safe.”
Norristown Area School District had an incident in February where a six-year old brought a gun to school. Thankfully, the weapon was not loaded and no one was injured. Back in December, a teacher was injured and required medical treatment while attempting to break up a fight. According to parent, Lisa Licwinko-Engleman, “School violence is intensifying like never before. Parents send their children to school to be educated, participate in sports, extra-curricular activities, to prepare them for life after graduation; not to be bullied, threatened, assaulted or discriminated against or worse, never to return home.”
Upper Darby School District has experienced numerous violent incidents to the point that Superintendent McGarry issued a statement in early March. “We will not tolerate threats of violence or acts of violence in our schools or community. We have to do better.”
A parent of a middle school student in Upper Darby, who preferred to remain anonymous for the sake of his child, described an incident in early March where his child was physically assaulted by another student during dismissal.
“This was a completely unprovoked and premeditated act of violence against my child. Security cameras captured the incident on video, and it clearly shows that the attacker pulled out her cellphone, set it to record, and handed it to another student prior to attacking my child. The entire assault was recorded and later uploaded to social media sites where the attacker bragged about her actions. My child was not only physically attacked, but also cyber-bullied.”
School districts need to conduct full investigations with intense follow-ups. A ‘once and done’ meeting sometimes isn’t enough.
Recently, in Upper Darby, there have been two murders of adolescents. In late March, an Upper Darby High School student shot and killed his brother over a basketball game. And just last month, a tenth grader at Upper Darby was brutally stabbed and killed. While these incidents did not occur at school or on school grounds, there does seem to be a correlation between school violence and the community.
Just last month in West Chester, a tenth grade student at East High School stabbed a young woman several times. Once again, this incident did not occur at school, but parents have expressed concerns about behavioral incidents in school, and it appears that may be a relationship between the two.
Connie Holloway is a parent of a child at East High School. “Like most parents, I worry for my child’s safety. I want to know that the school is a safe place, free of violence. And I don’t think that the administration and board are always on top of these issues. They seem to spend more time on issues that they shouldn’t as opposed to focusing on safety for all kids.”
A common theme among parents and others who express concerns about the violence and bullying in schools is the lack of an appropriate response from the administration and school board.
A local parent, John DeMasi explains the school violence issue in Upper Darby. “The schools were — for whatever reason — reluctant to enforce discipline and stop the violence and so the number of events and severity escalated while administrations turned into the proverbial frog in the pot. The water is now boiling and the administrations have neither the ideas nor necessary will power to change the culture that has now enveloped schools. Students think that the violence is just a regular part of the day because it is all they have ever known. The teachers are exhausted dealing with the fights and lack of discipline. And the administration would have to admit there is a problem to implement the changes necessary — and accept the blame.”
Torres-Viera in Reading is so concerned about the violence and lack of response from the administration that she decided to run for school board. “This is what has led me and other parents to decide that the only way that we are going to be able to be sitting at that table where they are juggling with our children’s safety is to run for school board and other positions. To get involved as much as possible is what’s going to help us keep our children safe.”
Similarly, Licwinko-Engleman in Norristown is attempting a second run at a school director seat this year. “As a school board director, school safety must be a priority of focus. School districts need to conduct full investigations with intense follow-ups. A ‘once and done’ meeting sometimes isn’t enough. Districts have to adhere to their policies and procedures when it comes to disciplinary measures and have resources available if necessary. This isn’t an issue that districts should be sweeping under rugs. Since the pandemic lock-downs, school safety has become violent, frequent, and in some cases deadly. Districts have to take school safety seriously; bullets don’t discriminate.”
Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty.
Editor’s Note: Beth Ann Rosica is a volunteer campaign manager for five candidates running for School Director in the West Chester Area School District.