Watlington puts safety upfront as violence takes center stage
Schools in Philly have seen their fair share of violence in recent weeks. What are Dr. Tony Watlington’s solutions?
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Philadelphia may not end 2022 with as many homicides as 2021, but that’s not to say it was a good year at all for the city in the areas surrounding violence prevention. That’s especially true as the year comes to a close when it involves the city’s youth, who have both become not only more likely victims of the crisis, but also its perpetrators.
In the last two months, Philadelphia’s youth have seen that violence hit their schools in two high profile incidents near Roxborough and Overbrook high schools. A November report on Dobbins High School from the Philadelphia Inquirer also brought further scrutiny on the district for not dealing with what was called “a chaotic and unsafe environment.”
With all the attention, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington told AL DÍA in a recent sit-down interview that it’s made the next phase of his transition plan even more vital.
At the top of the list, especially after the shootings near Overbrook and Roxborough, is safety.
“As a school district, our number one priority is to make sure our children are safe everyday,” said Watlington.
Like the city’s approach to the sprawling issue of gun violence, there are many short and long term solutions the superintendent laid out for the school district as it does its part in the overall city effort to curb gun violence.
On the short term side, Watlington said the school district will continue to support and look to expand its Safe Paths program, which employs adults to stand by along the routes students take to and from school. Right now, there are currently eight schools in the district that benefit from the program , but Watlington said there is a planned $750,000 of further investment that will take that number up to 12.
One of those schools to be added is Overbrook High School, where four students were shot near the school after being let out for Thanksgiving break in November.
The second short term solution Watlington discussed is continued investment and further expansion of Safety Zones surrounding certain schools in the district. It’s a partnership between the school district and the Philadelphia Police Department that puts uniformed police officers in and around schools.
“We know that having an increased law enforcement presence is important,” said Watlington.
On that front, an additional $600,000 is slated to strengthen the partnership over the next year and a half to two years.
For the third short term solution, Watlington spoke of a re-emphasis of talking to students in the district to connect better with them and learn more of their problems in and out of the classroom.
“See something, say something,” is what Watlington called the approach his leadership team is bringing to the student body. “You need something, raise your hand and ask.”
That’s something he said teachers and other staff members in the school district confront on a daily basis.
“In a historically underfunded school district, the needs of our students are great,” he said. “And we need to get them what they need.”
In one specific effort to better connect, Watlington said the school district would offer free online support for students between 6th and 12th grades. Teachers and other staff will also have access to the same online resources.
For long term solutions, Watlington said the school district would continue to monitor students’ attendances and progress in subjects like reading and math. Success in those fields, he said, makes students “believe they have options” when it comes to higher education.
But with the investments made now in safety, Watlington also said how it potentially takes away from investments in other areas, like hiring more climate managers, counselors and librarians for schools.
It’s why the third phase of Watlington’s transition is arguably the most important.