During March For Our Lives, city students caution suburban peers on security
Cobia was one of a host of students and advocates who took to the stage at Saturday’s rally, delivering a speech that focused on the dark side of safety policies.
“Students don’t deserve to be afraid of going to school on account that their school police officer might decide to pick on them that day,” she said.
Cobia cited an incident in which a Ben Franklin High student ended up in an officer’s “chokehold” after a conflict that started with a squabble over using the bathroom without a hall pass.
“Situations like this occur way too often,” Cobia said, and they can launch a student out of class and into a disciplinary process that can end in truancy, dropping out, or a trip down the proverbial “school to prison pipeline.”
For her and her fellow student union members, the key to safety in schools isn’t just keeping guns out, but keeping school discipline policies reined in. School police need to be effective and accountable, she said, and schools should offer counseling, mental health services, and “restorative justice” practices for those who break the rules.
“We deserve to walk into our schools knowing that we are respected and protected,” Cobia said.
Concern about aggressive security isn’t just in the city. Debbie Miller has three children in Montgomery County’s Spring-Ford Area School District, where a recent social media threat proved baseless – but disruptive.
“The Limerick Police Department had to patrol all week,” Miller said. “Everybody had to have their backpack checked, their cars searched, lockers searched. … This is ridiculous. Isn’t it hard enough to go to school and learn?”
Spring-Ford already employs regular active-shooter drills. “We bar the door and our teacher has a baseball bat, and we all hide,” said Miller’s son, 6th grader Tyler Zordan.
It is also considering adding armed guards. “The only way to stop somebody with a gun is somebody else with a gun,” argued one board member at a recent meeting.
Miller came to Saturday’s march to voice her frustration with measures she sees as unacceptably excessive. “These students don’t need to see their teacher with a baseball bat. They should be learning,” she said.
She also sees a particular threat to the district’s few minority students, who she believes will inevitably be unfairly targeted. That’s a concern shared by PSU’s Juanita Miller (no relation), who, like many advocates, worries that any increased focus on safety will end up disproportionately punishing minority students.
“This is a wonderful event, and I love the solidarity” between urban and suburban students and educators, said Miller as she marched in the bright sun down Market Street.
“But the same solidarity needs to be held with black and brown communities, because we’re often impacted by the reactions to events like this,” she said.
A welcome understanding
West Chester’s Silvi Howey said she’s getting that message loud and clear.
“When there’s violence against minorities, people aren’t taking [it] as seriously as violence against white kids,” said Howey, an 8th grader at Fugett Middle School.
“We could definitely all be working together to stop it,” said Howey. “We all believe there shouldn’t be all this violence. We should help people that might not have the resources that we have, and we should all use what we know to help each other.”
Philadelphia Student Union’s Cobia said she “definitely” welcomed that kind of rising awareness.
“If you’re not comfortable with your peers facing violence in communities where they’re supposed to be safe, then you should be speaking out against it,” she said. “Because we are one.”
KIPP’s Hanifah Brockman likewise welcomed signs that the Parkland shootings, horrific as they were, are helping forge an important understanding among students around the region.
“It just shows that [violence] is becoming a mass problem. It’s not just the inner city. It’s going to suburbs, too,” said Brockman, who said she lost two cousins in shootings. “It’s to let people know that no one is safe, no matter where you live.”
But one of Brockman’s teachers at KIPP, Sauce Leon, sounded a note of caution. There’s been plenty of dialogue at his school since Parkland, he said, and plenty of pessimism.
“A lot of kids are starting to feel like there’s nothing that can be done – that this is the reality of our world,” he said. “And that’s disheartening.”
Students at Saturday’s march supported a range of ideas for attacking the specific problem of gun control. Some supported background checks, and others suggested better mental-health screening or restrictions on sales of bump stocks or semiautomatic weapons like the AR-15.
But they all agreed: better to solve the broader problem of violence outside their schools than in it.
“Safety measures in schools is a good idea, but getting rid of guns is a better idea and will ultimately make schools safer,” said Lower Merion’s Dunleavy.
“I would feel really nervous if my teachers had guns … more unsafe than safe,” said Howey.
And as for rocks, she added, “I guess it’d be good to throw them. But we shouldn’t have to be worried about it in the first place.”
Notebook reporter and photographer Darryl C. Murphy contributed to this article.