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The Roxborough school shooting has educators asking: If a football scrimmage isn’t safe, what is?

Kristen A. Graham - Philadelphia Inquirer

“Every single shooting is sad and heartbreaking, but it’s not the same when it happens in a place that’s supposed to be safe," one Philadelphia teacher said.

As soon as Clarice Brazas heard Tuesday about the shooting by five apparent juveniles at Roxborough High that left four students wounded and one dead, the Philadelphia teacher thought: How will I explain this to my students?

“We always tell our kids, ‘Stay in school, do an activity, play a sport. These things will help you build a better life and keep you safe,’ but it seems like we can’t keep kids safe anymore,” said Brazas, who teaches at Academy at Palumbo, a public school in South

Philadelphia. “Every single shooting is sad and heartbreaking, but it’s not the same when it happens in a place that’s supposed to be safe.”

It was a sentiment voiced over and over, among school officials and neighborhood residents: These boys were just playing a friendly game of football. If that’s not a safe haven, what is? Can schools protect their children?

That students were shot immediately after a school-sanctioned, after-school activity keeps veteran Philadelphia principal Robin Cooper up at night. Cooper, president of the

Philadelphia principals union, came to Roxborough Tuesday night to support administrators and help plan how to help the affected schools cope.

There are only tough choices for school leaders, said Cooper, whose union has been speaking out against gun violence and asking for more supports for the past year.

“Do you sit on pins and needles and wait for the gunshots to start? Do you cancel the activities and say, ‘You can only come to school for reading, math, science, and social studies now?” said Cooper. “Something has got to give, because we are a city under siege.”

Officials said Wednesday they had no plans to reduce or end athletic or extracurricular activities. Deputy Police Commissioner Joel Dales said authorities had reached out to the district and would continue to focus on not just football games, as they have in the past, but also on practices and scrimmages.

Though Tuesday’s shooting was jarring, a tragedy, “it’s the kind of thing that happens over and over,” said David Riedman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database and a national school-safety expert. “It’s happening in every size community, in every part of the country.”

School sporting events have been particular hot spots. Last Friday night alone, there were four shootings at football games around the country — in Delaware, Minnesota, California, and Philadelphia, where shots were fired at a game between West Philadelphia and Lincoln

High Schools. No one was injured in the Philadelphia shooting.

There have been 25 shootings nationally at or after football games so far this season, Riedman said, and deciding how to address safety at such events requires a delicate balance.

“You need to build community, you need to build relationships, and high school football is a very important part of many communities across the country. If you decide that people are not going to come to the games, you might end up further fracturing the community,” he said.

The mood was somber at Roxborough and Saul, where Nicholas Elizalde, the 14-year-old killed by the gunfire, attended.

Students were crying. Adults were crying. But they were doing their best to help their students process grief and fear, said LeShawna Coleman, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers staffer who represents both schools. Coleman spent hours at them Wednesday.

“Our teachers were showing up for kids, they were putting their emotions aside, and just trying to support them,” said Coleman.

Attendance was low at Roxborough but strong at Saul, though many Saul students “kept saying that they were afraid that someone was going to come there and do something to them,” Coleman said. “There was so much fear.”

In one Saul gym class, the teacher — who had taught Elizalde — first talked to her students about the tragedy, then gave them space to handle their grief in the way that felt best.

Some young people drew or colored; others wanted to play volleyball. Some sat alone, listening to music; others wanted to huddle in small groups or stay near their teacher.

“It was just so sad,” said Coleman.

Staff told her that Elizalde was “a very good boy,” Coleman said. “He gave his teachers no problems whatsoever.”

The last class Elizalde attended Tuesday was math. At one point, he had asked for permission to use the bathroom. Then his teacher looked up and realized he never came back. A classmate reminded the teacher that Elizalde played football, and the team had been called to go to practice while he was in the bathroom.

When news of the shooting began to spread, Elizalde’s math teacher was stunned, Coleman said.

“She said, ‘Something just told me it was him,’” said Coleman.

At Northeast High, one of the schools whose JV team scrimmaged with the Roxborough football team Tuesday, the mood was subdued, strange, said Katherine Argot, a social studies teacher.

At the start of every class period, she offered students a chance to talk about the shooting.

”In some instances, I found that students wanted clarification on what happened; sometimes they just vented about how it’s scary to live in Philly right now, how they feel powerless,” said Argot.

Students also wanted to know: The adults at press conferences say they’re sad. Are they really?

Threats prompted a lockdown at Northeast, adding to the tense tenor of the day.

”I always say to the students, ‘Be safe getting home.’ I think some of them recognize that I’m being absolutely genuine. Probably today, some of them had the realization — ‘Oh, she’s not just saying that,’” said Argot.

The shooting had ripples in classrooms across the city Wednesday. Though Palumbo is 10 miles from Roxborough, it’s a magnet school, drawing young people from many neighborhoods. And if schools can’t field a particular sports team, their students are eligible to play with another school’s team. That’s why Elizalde was playing with Roxborough.

“Our kids have school choice, so they are from all over the city,” said Brazas, the Palumbo teacher. “This is not just impacting one tiny community.”

To many Philadelphia students, the constant stream of violence is numbing.

“I would like to honestly say that I was saddened or felt grief, but I hate to say it, but this happens so often that I’m not fazed by it,” said Lance Plumer, 18, a senior at nearby Martin Luther King High School in East Germantown. “It’s not that we don’t care, but it happens too often.”

Plumer had his own brush with violence this week: Hours before the shooting at Roxborough, King was in lockdown. Plumer said a student brought a fake gun and real bullets to school.

“I’m not surprised by it anymore,” said Plumer. “Before, you would hear about a school shooting and it would be a big deal. Now you think, ‘That’s how it goes now.’”

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