Hundreds gathered at Gorgas Park for a prayer vigil following the shooting near Roxborough High School, remembering Nicholas Elizalde, 14, who was killed

Parents in Roxborough are taking different approaches to helping their children process the shooting near a high school that left the Northwest Philly community shaken. Teens are navigating new kinds of grief and fear, while parents of younger children are taking the tragic event into account as they plan their families’ future.

One student was killed and four were injured last week after a football scrimmage involving students from four Philadelphia high schools — Roxborough High School, W.B. Saul High School, Northeast High School and Boys Latin Charter School.

In some parts of the city, residents experience shootings all the time. A map of gun violence in Philadelphia, compiled by the City Controller’s Office, shows only a few 2022 incidents in Roxborough and Manayunk. That pattern has stayed consistent throughout the past decade.

“I just often wonder out loud, how have we gone so wrong that people feel they need to use a gun to settle a conflict?” said parent Rosemary Barbera. She teaches social work at La Salle University, and sees a clear connection between the violence and many major policy issues in Philadelphia.

“Our schools are so strapped for funding, that they can’t even get to the educational purpose of what they’re supposed to do, let alone the social and emotional stuff,” Barbera said.

Roxborough High School is nestled within the neighborhood, surrounded by homes and other spaces where families and young children are often around. Gorgas Park, with walking trails and a large playground, is just up the hill from the football field. Several area parents walk by the field to drop off and pick up their young children from Holy Family Child Care.

Barbera’s 16-year-old son goes to Saul, and he often goes to the football games after school to spend time with friends on the Roxborough team. “Luckily,” she said, he came home early that Tuesday.

Hundreds of neighbors joined a prayer vigil Thursday night for Nicolas Elizalde, and mothers from the area gathered in front of the school Friday morning to support students arriving for classes. Police are continuing to investigate.

Billy Penn spoke with several parents of students from the Roxborough High School catchment area. A few are thinking of moving — or have already started the process. Some want more police presence at school events right away, though the effectiveness of having police on school campuses is unclear, and has been the subject of heavy debate.

All of them expressed frustration about how some community members characterize RHS students, and worry those young people are internalizing the blanket descriptions.

Foremost, they’re concerned about how their children and others will be affected as the community moves forward.

Flowers laid in Gorgas Park in memory of Nicolas Elizalde, 14, killed in the shooting Credit: Cory Sharber / WHYY

‘That could have been my son’

“I was born and raised here. The way this world has changed, it’s changed so much,” said Dyane Berry, 51. Berry’s son is a freshman at Saul in Roxborough, and was friends with Saul student Nicholas Elizalde, who was killed Wednesday.

While gun violence is an urgent issue throughout the city, she noted, “With it hitting close to home, it’s more upsetting.”

Saul doesn’t have a football team, so students there are allowed to co-op with Roxborough High School for football. Berry’s son frequently played sports at the park where the five students were shot on Tuesday. She’s been talking to him about how to act if he ever finds himself in the same situation — something she never thought she would have to do.

Berry herself went to RHS and two of her older children were enrolled there very briefly, but ended up doing most of their high school years elsewhere.

“After this incident I’m thinking about moving out of the neighborhood. We’re scared,” Berry said. “That could have been my son.”

Cara Garland, 47, had a similar thought about moving months ago. After the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two adults were murdered, she expected more from her son’s K-8 school, Cook-Wissahickon, which feeds into RHS. She said she wasn’t told of any new precautions added, and it seemed like anyone could just walk into the school.

This spring, Philadelphia schools announced they would start screening students in Grades 6-8 for weapons periodically, though some parents and teachers debated whether this would send the wrong message to students.

Worried about school safety, Garland decided to move out of the city with her 7-year-old, to another Pa. town about two hours away. She was in Manayunk packing up the last of her things on Wednesday. As an occupational therapist, Garland said, she’s visited neighborhoods all over the city. “Never was I afraid. But just being back today, it’s just a gloom cloud over your shoulder.”

One Roxborough mother who was at the scrimmage, and asked not to be named, said her family moved to the area not long ago, but she’s already looking at other schools for her children. One plays on the Roxborough High football team. Her other child, an elementary schooler, was at the high school on Tuesday as well.

The football player’s mother was upset police weren’t at the scrimmage before the shooting occured, and that they haven’t pledged to be at all scrimmages going forward. Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales said police plan to increase security at schools going forward, but they can’t cover all football games or scrimmages.

The football player’s mother was also unhappy with RHS’s response, saying she felt like “the school is giving mixed messages” and “lacked a cohesive unit.”

Hundreds gathered at Gorgas Park for a prayer vigil following the deadly shooting near Roxborough High School Credit: Cory Sharber / WHYY

‘These are innocent kids’

The RHS catchment includes Andorra, Roxborough, Manayunk and East Falls, and parts of Mount Airy and Germantown. Some Roxborough residents, expressing themselves on social media, have been blaming the Roxborough High students for what happened, and calling for the school to be shut down. And some have decried the school for bringing kids from other neighborhoods into the area, blaming them for incidents of crime.

The parents who spoke with Billy Penn felt differently.

Felicita Taylor, 41, who lives in East Falls, has two daughters who go to Roxborough High School, a junior and a senior. One of them was supposed to be at the scrimmage, but went home instead because she didn’t feel well.

Taylor kept the two girls home from school on Wednesday, but only so they could rest and “get their thoughts together” after Tuesday’s tragedy. Their experience at RHS hasn’t been perfect, she said, but “every issue I’ve ever had was resolved quickly.”

“The community needs to stop. They can’t blame that shooting on Roxborough High,” Taylor said. The students “could have been in the streets … instead they’re on the field playing a game they love.”

A few days before the shooting, the Wawa just down the street from the high school announced it would be closing daily during school dismissal because dozens students were flooding the store, and some were causing trouble — it’s reminiscent of issues that food cart Roxburgers experienced in 2021.

A post about the Wawa situation in the neighborhood Facebook group, Roxborough Rants & Raves, on Tuesday afternoon, spurred a barrage of comments about RHS students and the school itself — many of them unkind. Group admins shut down commenting on the post after learning about the shooting.

“Just the way people in this community talk about the kids at Roxborough High School, it’s really upsetting,” said Barbera, the mother with two 16-year-olds, including a Saul student.

“Kids know when they’re not being respected, and they act accordingly,” Barbera said. “They’re going to live up to our expectations of them in many ways.”

For Andorra resident Alona Regan, who has a 4-year-old daughter, high school is years in the future, but also not far in her own rear view. She’s a 2014 graduate of RHS.

“I would like to stay in the neighborhood if possible,” Regan said. She’s lost patience with residents who are blaming the school and its students for neighborhood safety issues.

Regan has fond memories of Roxborough High School, where she was involved in ROTC and participated in poetry club. She started late because she was adopted from Russia, and she remembers the teachers and administrators who helped her get acclimated.

“These are innocent kids. You may not like that they’re from other areas or other neighborhoods, but tough luck,” Regan said. “No child should have to go to school in fear for their life.”