Philly students really want after-school activities to be safe spaces, but aren’t sure it’s true

The city’s gun violence “makes being a student even more difficult,” one teenager said.

Students leaving Constitution High School in Old City at the end of a school day

Students leaving Constitution High School in Old City at the end of a school day

Nathan Morris / Billy Penn

Many high school students in Philadelphia considered after-school activities an escape from the city’s rising gun violence. The recent tragedy outside Roxborough High has some questioning if that’s still true.

Sarah Hass, a senior on the soccer team at Bodine High School in Northern Liberties, heard about last month’s shooting after a Roxborough football scrimmage just as she was returning from her own game.

“On the bus, our coach told us, and I was very shocked. I felt a different environment the moment of hearing that,” Hass told Billy Penn. “I personally created a wall. Like, those things are happening continuously elsewhere. This is what goes through people’s minds to protect the feeling of fear. But at one point there’s a realization … it could’ve been an event you were at.”

After school sports and clubs at Philly schools — which include everything from student government to learning how to play card games — are often cited as a way to keep teens from engaging in high-risk behavior.

“I think activities give the opportunity for kids to get away from getting themselves into crowds that are more prone to violent spaces and situations,” said Hass. “But just like any activity, I don’t think anything is 100% safe.”

Risa Garg, a senior at Central High School in Logan, agreed, adding that it helps to have a place to go that’s not just home to the family. “After-school sports and clubs provide a way for students to be able to spend more time at school, and give them a safe space to be in that is not their home.”

Garg runs a club called Feminists of Asian Minorities, and participates in the Central debate team, which meets twice a week after school. That can lead to late evenings, which is not a favorite.

“With the gun violence going on in Philadelphia, it is very difficult to feel safe taking SEPTA alone later in the day, or just in general trying to get home later in the day when it gets dark outside,” Garg said.

At the beginning of this academic year, the city, police, and school district partnered on a program to help students stay safe when heading home. Called the Safe Zone Initiative, it places extra officers near schools after hours. A handful of schools have also implemented a patrol program that recruits community members to don vests and serve as after-school guides.

Basketball nets at the George Sharswood School in Whitman

Basketball nets at the George Sharswood School in Whitman

Nathan Morris / Billy Penn

“I personally feel safe because the club leaders make sure of it and do lots of safety precautions, such as having security throughout the building,” said Sarah Jackson, a senior at String Theory School in Center City. “Since we wear uniforms,” she added, “it usually helps teachers and staff keep better track of us.”

While the worry is not with the activity itself, students said they’re concerned about the environment that awaits them outside the school grounds. Almost a quarter of people shot over the past five years in Philly have been within 400 feet of a school, according to an Inquirer analysis of police data.

Joshua Cohen, a senior who participates in soccer, lacrosse, and indoor track at Masterman High School in Spring Garden, described a shift in views after the Roxborough shooting.

“A lot of people I know were very shocked by the recent incidents, and it led to them feeling somewhat uncomfortable in the sports and clubs,” Cohen said. “In an environment that is often hailed for being safe, it is definitely an odd feeling for people.”

Cohen described participating in many discussions about it, both within the teams and the larger school community: “Though the original shock has worn off, the long-term ramifications are definitely still being felt.”

“Living in a city where gun violence is rampant, and the government is not doing their part to fix it,” Cohen said, “makes being a student even more difficult.”

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