The U School on N. 7th Street in Philadelphia
Listen to an audio version of this story.

It had become an everyday occurrence for Argelis Minaya-Bravo, as ordinary as meeting friends over the weekend or sitting through math class.

First she’d hear the gunshots. Then, at the instruction of her fourth grade teacher, she’d climb under her desk or cram into the coat closet with her peers. For 10 minutes, or 20, or sometimes 45, Minaya-Bravo would wait there and listen for the rippling sound of gunfire to turn to silence.

When it did, she and her fellow 10-year-old classmates would get back to learning, not missing a beat.

By the time she graduated from Philip H. Sheridan Elementary School in Kensington, Minaya-Bravo had mastered the routine. In Philadelphia, school lockdowns due to neighborhood shootings are unfortunately unremarkable.

A Billy Penn analysis of district data shows that over the last decade, Philly schools have called a lockdown as often as 1 of every 2 weekdays, on average. During the most recent academic year, there was a lockdown somewhere in the district almost each school day. Some parents say they were never notified.

The most common reason, according to the analysis: gunfire in the school’s immediate area.

“You kind of normalize them,” said Minaya-Bravo, now a 19-year-old Arcadia University student. “Growing up in Philly, it’s just something you get used to, something you’ve been experiencing every day since elementary school.”

There’s no question Philadelphia suffers a high homicide rate and more shootings than anyone knows how to handle.

“Unfortunately we live in a city where there’s violence,” said Philadelphia School District spokesperson Megan Lello. “The lockdowns, many times, are because of violence in the community. At that point our goal is to keep the students safe.”

While there have been more than 700 reported lockdowns in the last decade, the real number could be much higher. The district doesn’t appear to have any standard for how schools keep track of these frequent disruptions. Schools are required to inform the district when lockdowns happen — but interviews with students and administrators indicate that does not always happen. When they are reported, the information is mostly handwritten and not uniform.

After first requesting the information from the district in February and eventually filing a Right-To-Know request in May, Billy Penn obtained 10 years of school police logs showing each individual lockdown.

The whole situation can be distressing for students, and affect their long-term mental health, researchers say. This past August, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s administration introduced a new grant program for schools helping students cope with violence-related trauma.

Lockdowns can also be chilling for parents — who aren’t always informed about the incidents.

“God forbid, if there’s a school shooting or something like that,” said Christina Gorham, whose 9-year-old daughter goes to Julia de Burgos Elementary School.

“It’s leading me to speculate, how often is this honestly happening?”

Giavannah and Christina Gorham Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Lights out, then hide: How a lockdown works

It was 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in April 2009. The day had just begun at Penn Treaty Middle School when a receptionist answered the office phone and was struck by a threatening message, district records show:

“Evacuate the building because in a half hour, I’m gonna be shooting up the building.”

On a different Tuesday, this one in September 2016, as the school day came to a close at Watson Comly Elementary School in Northeast Philly, police reports say a first-grade student revealed they had a bullet in their backpack.

In April 2017, the data says, three dozen North Philadelphia public schools were put on high alert by police due to a shooting in the neighborhood.

Each of these incidents compelled a school lockdown. Sometimes, they’re instituted by school faculty. Usually, they’re imposed by Philly police.

Students interviewed by Billy Penn identified a common chain of events: There’s some sort of threat to the building. Administrators make an announcement over the school’s loudspeaker system. As faculty members lock each and every interior door, teachers turn off the lights and guide students to hide in the classroom corner that’s least visible from the doorway.

Then the students wait. They say the incident can take anywhere from 10 minutes to almost an hour, depending on the nature of the lockdown. When it’s over, administrators announce the conclusion over the loudspeaker and the teacher jumps back into instruction.

The biggest culprit for the regular learning interruptions? Gunfire in the neighborhood, per the data.

Also common: fights inside schools, weapon or bullet sightings and unspecified directives from police — known as “J-band calls.” Every once in a while, a school is locked down due to a conflict with a parent, or a threat made over the phone.

Few schools are exempt from this worst-case-scenario procedure. Out of 346 total schools, 67% have reported at least one lockdown since the 2008-09 academic year.

Schools in neighborhoods with higher rates of violent crime are hit with lockdowns more often. Learning institutions in North Philadelphia, Kensington, Fairhill and Southwest Philly top the frequency list for lockdowns reported.

After speaking with people involved, Billy Penn noted a repeated discrepancy between how many lockdowns students said they experienced, and how many were officially reported.

On the list, the U School in North Central Philadelphia has the highest count, with 20 reported lockdowns since the school opened in 2015.

The situation is frightening parents.

“If your emotional need of safety isn’t being fulfilled, how do you even get to learning?” said Nicole Newman, whose daughter graduated from the U School earlier this year. “You can’t get to learning if you’re not safe.”

Julia De Burgos Elementary on Lehigh Ave. in Philadelphia Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Teen: I have regular nightmares about being shot

In interviews with Billy Penn, students called the lockdowns scary. But many appear to have normalized the incidents, compartmentalizing the neighborhood violence as something ordinary.

“The first time I ever experienced it [in second grade], it was heavy, it was really scary,” Minaya-Bravo said. “But in high school it’s just like, ‘Oh someone got stabbed, oh there’s a shooting outside.’ We’re just so used to it.”

More than fear, it’s frustration students say they feel over lockdowns regularly interrupting their learning, or forcing them to stay late at school.

“It did feel disruptive if we’re in the middle of doing something important for our math or humanities class and we have to stop for 10 minutes,” said Raymon Ortiz, who graduated from the U School in June. “It does build up over time.”

Now a year out of high school, Minaya-Bravo said she realizes the everyday violence left some emotional scars. The undergrad sociology student still jumps when she hears loud noises. She has regular nightmares about being shot. They’re less frequent now than when she was a kid, but the dark scenarios still visit her often.

They always end the same: with her own visage being turned into a memorial in the Kensington neighborhood where she grew up — the kind set up on street corners, decorated with handmade cards and piled with stuffed animals.

“That, to me, was just like what’s normal,” Minaya-Bravo said. “But that’s probably related to constantly hearing people getting shot, or seeing people put up those memorials constantly.”

Lockdowns can be especially traumatizing for students with special needs.

Giavannah Gorham is in third grade at Julia de Burgos Elementary School, which ranks fourth for most reported lockdowns in Philly in the last 10 years. She has cerebral palsy, which impacts muscle development and mobility — so she usually needs either a wheelchair or a walker to move around the classroom.

Last week, the 9-year-old went through a lockdown drill, which the School District of Philadelphia mandates institutions conduct at least once every school year. In Giavannah’s case, she had to line up against the wall next to her peers, out of sight of the room’s entryway, which didn’t allow much room for her walker.

“They just didn’t give me any space,” Giavannah said. “It was just too scary for me. It’s so scary.”

Giavannah’s mom, Christina Gorham, worries about how her daughter’s limited mobility might affect her during a situation that turns into a real emergency. Will she be able to move fast enough? Or hide effectively from danger?

“If your kid comes home and they say, ‘Oh, we had a lockdown,’ parents are going to think terrorists, guns, stuff like that,” Gorham said, through tears. “That’s my only daughter.”

Argelis Minaya-Bravo in 2018, when she was a senior in high school Credit: Darryl C. Murphy / The Notebook

Are parents notified? Sometimes

Since Giavannah started at De Burgos in 2016, the school has called at least eight lockdowns, according to reported data.

But Gorham said she’s only been notified of two incidents, both times via a letter sent home in her daughter’s backpack.

“When the schools don’t tell you, that’s the main thing,” Gorham said. “You can’t prevent everything, but to be informed is better.”

Nancy Kislin is a lifelong social worker and family therapist in North Jersey. She’s been researching for years the increasing prevalence of lockdowns, culminating in a book called LOCKDOWN: Talking to Your Kids about School Violence.

“This is the biggest mental health crisis affecting our kids today that no one wants to talk about,” Kislin told Billy Penn. “There’s nothing normal about putting our children in cubbies and closets hiding from a potential person with a gun.”

So how do we help kids deal with it? The best way to combat lockdown-induced trauma, per Kislin, is to talk about the incidents. After a lockdown, she recommends parents and teachers each debrief with students, encouraging the kids to process how it made them feel.

Teachers are not required to discuss lockdowns with students. Usually, they just jump back into instruction. And it’s common for parents not to be alerted — making it hard for them to help.

School District spokesperson Megan Lello said there is usually a letter sent home with students after a lockdown explaining what happened. In more extreme cases, like violent crimes with media coverage, the district will deploy a robocall to tell parents when everything is OK.

“Are there instances when parents don’t necessarily receive communication of a lockdown?” Lello said. “Sure. But that might be because it’s very short lived.”

U School Principal Neil Geyette echoed that sentiment. If a lockdown is the result of an outside incident — like a shooting or a stabbing — and it doesn’t enter the building, he won’t usually make an effort to tell parents.

“A lot of our lockdowns, when I’ve been informed of them, is a shooting three blocks away, or a police raid around the corner,” Geyette said. “I can’t say that we communicated with parents on all of those, because they were external actions that we had no control over.”

“I believe completely in transparency and openness,” he added. “But if there’s not a reason to be concerned, I don’t want young people stressing about things they don’t need to be concerned about.”

And although Geyette tries to help his students cope, The U School’s teachers aren’t required to talk to students about the lockdowns — and he doesn’t usually hold assemblies or meetings to debrief with students.

Best practice, per therapist Kislin, is to email parents every single time there’s a lockdown, as soon as it ends. And she recommends that teachers shouldn’t get back into instruction immediately — but instead take a few minutes to discuss what just happened.

“What we know about trauma is that it’s so important that adults and children have a chance to talk about their experience and strategize how to cope with it,” Kislin said.

Jules E. Mastbaum high school on Frankford Ave. in Philadelphia Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Who’s in charge here?

How does Philly keep track of its school lockdowns? The School District oversees the reporting process. School police officers at each institution are supposed to inform district HQ via radio whenever they need to secure the building.

But the records kept by the district are not easy to understand. Most of them are handwritten — almost to the point of illegibility.

And since the data are self-reported, there’s the possibility that some lockdowns could be left out. Geyette said he’s never reported one in his four years as principal of the U School, and told Billy Penn he was under the impression it was the responsibility of the school police.

The School District’s emergency preparedness policy does not mention how to handle real lockdown situations — it only covers lockdown drills. Billy Penn made multiple requests for clarification on the district’s recommended procedure for handling and reporting lockdowns, and did not get a clear response.

Whatever the process, Mayor Jim Kenney’s office said the practice is necessary to ensure safety.

“The Mayor does not disagree that the practice of school lockdowns can be disruptive and, for some, traumatic,” said Sarah Peterson, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Education. “But lockdowns occur to keep our students safe, which is paramount. Decisions to lock down are not taken lightly.”

Gov. Wolf’s office is trying to reform the process. In August 2019, the state implemented a new program that offers grant funding to schools that institute trauma-informed care in their security policies.

Responses from schools have only just started coming in, but so far, interest is up compared to last year’s school safety grant program, the governor’s office said.

“Governor Wolf is concerned about the trauma that stems from community violence, especially among children,” said spokesperson JJ Abbott. “State agencies are currently working together to establish coordinated and consistent trauma-informed training and practices in state-operated and state-funded programs, including educational settings.”

A sample of the Lockdown reporting records analyzed for this story Credit: School District of Philadelphia

Students and faculty: This is not OK

When it comes to lockdowns, U School principal Geyette feels stuck.

The procedures are almost always called by police in response to an incident outside the school, he said — and it brings the huge and seemingly intractable gun violence problem into the realm of his own responsibility.

“There are times when it’s really frustrating,” Geyette said. “It’s a time when we don’t have control. This isn’t OK. There shouldn’t be shootings around schools. But it does happen.”

For Minaya-Bravo, the student who told Billy Penn about her nightmares, continued education has helped her move forward. She’s studying sociology, which she said has helped her understand her own trauma.

Having recently uncovered her own emotional wounds, the Arcadia University sophomore is still scared. Her little sister is attends the same elementary school in Kensington, and already experienced a lockdown this academic year.

Minaya-Bravo is trying to help her little sister process the incidents — something she said she didn’t have growing up.

“I’m just making her mindful that some of the things she’s feeling are normal,” she said. “Some of the things she’s growing up with in her neighborhood are not OK, and that she shouldn’t normalize that.”

“It’s hard,” Minaya-Bravo added. “It’s just a horrible cycle.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...