PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Philadelphia's pervasive gun violence is seen in the communities where students live, at their rec centers, and near their schools. It impacts students and the people they know.
Philadelphia School District superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington Sr. has now penned an op-ed outlining the district's safety plan, addressing five key areas where the district will focus attention and resources.
"We absolutely must win this war on safety," emphasized Dr. Watlington.
Four Overbrook High School students were shot near school after being dismissed for Thanksgiving break.
In September, five teens were shot walking off Roxborough High's football field. 14-year-old Nicolas Elizalde did not survive.
The district will allocate more than $600,000 in grant funding to hire more Philadelphia police officers and enhance the police safety zones surrounding schools.
"The incidents at Roxborough High and Overbrook just underscored for us - we just need more law enforcement presence," explained Dr. Watlington.
The district will also invest $750,000 to expand the 'Safe Paths' program to include 12 more schools. In the program, formerly called 'Safe Corridors,' the district and community partners provide extra supervision to students as they travel to and from school.
"We are aggressively seeking additional resources so we can expand beyond those twelve," added Dr. Watlington.
More student and staff mental health services will be provided.
Also, the superintendent will make monthly reports to the Board of Education regarding attendance and dropout data to focus on keeping kids in school.
"It is a long-term partnership strategy to help us get our arms around violence in this city," elaborated Dr. Watlington.
Finally, the district will address needs at specific schools where necessary
"It's no secret that Dobbins High is one of those schools," Dr. Watlington stated.
He continued, "We're bringing in a retired administrator to put some additional support there, and we're working with parents to get at the root problems."
Also, the school district is now launching the development of a strategic plan process, and they are looking for input from families. You can provide your input starting this Monday through December 18th.
Here is Dr. Watlington's full op-ed on school safety:
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Implements Safety Measures
Upon accepting the role as superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia, I fully understood that persistent issues like chronic poverty and rising gun violence continue to plague this city and therefore affect our students in the District and their families.
And when I talk to our children, I hear how many of them are scared because of the unrelenting gun violence devastating neighborhoods across Philadelphia. Accordingly, safety must be our top priority.
To be clear, reducing gun violence and increasing the safety of our city needs to be a community, collaborative effort. While a school district cannot solve the issue of gun violence for an entire city, we will continue to show up to the table with city leadership, community stakeholders, and business leaders, prepared to roll up our sleeves and do our part.
I intend to ensure our schools remain a safe haven for our District students and that we are addressing student and staff safety and well-being by focusing on five key areas:
1. Expanding the Safe Paths Program
2. Increasing Safety Zones around school communities
3. Providing Student and Staff Mental Health Services
4. Evaluating Attendance and Dropout Data
5. Addressing Specific School Needs
Expanding the Safe Paths Program
Over the next two years, we will invest $750,000 into expanding the Safe Paths program to include 12 additional schools. The Safe Paths program is a collaboration between the District, businesses and community members that aims to provide extra supervision for students traveling to and from school, particularly during the critical dismissal periods.
Increasing Safety Zones
The District will also allocate more than $600,000 in grant funding to expand and enhance the police safety zones surrounding our schools. The funding will enable the District to hire Philadelphia Police Department officers to address safety issues outside of the school building that warrant an increased police presence.
Providing Student and Staff Mental Health Services
Through a phased implementation approach, the District is proud to begin offering students access to Kooth, an international leader in online youth mental health. Through this benefit, which will be funded by the Department of Human Services, all students from 6th-12th grade will have access to three types of support:
-Pennsylvania licensed counselors for professional support.
-Peer support - where students can anonymously share their thoughts and feelings.
-Therapeutic content and activities
In November, the District launched a new mental health benefit in partnership with Lyra Health, a provider of mental health benefits for employees. District employees now have access to several confidential support options including therapy, coaching, and unlimited access to self-care online tools or resources to help them navigate mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, and more.
Evaluating Attendance and Dropout Data
Because a key aspect of safety is making sure our students are in school and not outside on the street where violence occurs, the District has begun conducting monthly district-wide attendance and dropout reports with the goal of increasing the number of students who demonstrate regular attendance. By focusing on consistent attendance, we will help students get better grades, develop healthy life habits, avoid dangerous behavior, and have a better chance of graduating from high school. I commit to sharing this data regularly with the Board of Education and the community.
Addressing Specific School Needs
Since June, I have visited nearly 50 of our schools to understand what is happening first-hand. In most schools, I have observed hard working staff and compliant students who are persevering every day. I have also observed schools facing student attendance and/or student behavior challenges. Getting the culture right in these schools is a top priority! I have already met with some families to listen and understand their concerns, as well as reallocated resources and hired additional school support staff to get these schools on the right path towards success.
While we have many challenges before us, we will not surrender to gun violence and we will not accept out of control schools. Both are absolutely unacceptable!
As a runner I know the best view comes after the hardest climb. That's where we are right now as a District: Climbing. Inch by inch. Step by step.
And many of you - parents, students, alumni, community members and clergy leaders - have been climbing for many years, forging ahead on this journey for an improved school district that delivers more educational opportunities leading to better student outcomes.
I understand your legs are probably weary, but I humbly ask that we continue climbing together. As a collaborative and results-oriented leader, I will continue to ask our parents and community to be equal partners with our schools. And my vision remains:
The School District of Philadelphia will achieve the Board's Goals and Guardrails, as well as become the fastest improving large urban school district in the country.