In neighborhoods across the country, students spend a significant portion of their waking hours in their public schools. Most of these students worry about how they will do on their next math test or whether their parents will let them go to the upcoming school dances. Few fret about whether they will get physically harmed by simply walking through their school hallways. However, in one of the most dangerous schools in Philadelphia, physical safety is a top concern for the students that attend that institution day in and day out.
Introducing Strawberry Mansion
Strawberry Mansion, a public high school in North Philadelphia, consistently makes the list of the most dangerous schools in Pennsylvania. According to Philly.com, the school has reported 10 violent incidents for every 100 students every year for the past five years. In this school year alone, 49 reports of everything from fires to teacher attacks have been documented either inside or just outside the school building.
With a student population of 435 students at the beginning of this past school year, Strawberry Mansion is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The community also has a high crime rate, an influx of illegal guns and frequent property damage. In the midst of this environment, high school students head to school each morning, unsure what the day will hold for them.
A High School or a War Zone?
Inside Strawberry Mansion, ABC reports there are 94 security cameras, six school police officers and two metal detectors. Students must walk through the metal detectors to get into the building – in some cases they are searched by police officers as well. Signs in the hallway of the school remind students that weapons are strictly prohibited.
Police officers come together every morning to pray before doors are opened to the students. Then, their real work begins, as they keep their eyes open for razor blades wrapped in tin foil and knives hidden in backpacks. Some students show up to school with Vaseline on their faces, a sign a fight is expected later. Vaseline is used to protect the face from scratches during fights.
The current principal at Strawberry Mansion, Linda Cliatt-Wyman, says the most dangerous time of the day for staff and students is generally lunch. This is the time when all the students at the school congregate in a single location. Police officers are clearly visible as they move through groups of students, and Cliatt-Wyman carries her bullhorn and watches for signs of trouble. This may be the time when fights must be broken up or other actions must be stopped before they get out of hand.
Fighting for the Children
Cliatt-Wyman is the fourth principal to come to Strawberry Mansion in as many years. Prior to her appointment, Cliatt-Wyman served as the assistant superintendent of high schools for the large Philadelphia school system. However, as she told ABC’s Diane Saywer in a special segment dedicated to Strawberry Mansion, she began to feel her calling was elsewhere.
“I could not find a principal that was suitable to handle this school,” Cliatt-Wyman told ABC. “Therefore, I said to myself, because I love these students dearly and I knew the community…I would just volunteer to be the principal.”
Cliatt-Wyman’s timing appears to be impeccable. The Notebook reports that Strawberry Mansion was one of 29 Philadelphia schools slated for closure. Cliatt-Wyman had just one year to start turning things around or the closure would be a done deal. However, parents, students and teachers were vehemently opposed to closing the school, saying taking students out of their familiar environment would actually hinder them rather than help.
Cliatt-Wyman went to work. One of her first acts as principal was to establish a dress code to improve student safety. Boots were banned, since they could be used to stomp students’ heads. Hooded jackets were also prohibited, since they made it easy for students to hide from the many security cameras in the school. The new principal also became a very visible presence to students, as she worked to maintain order while nurturing positive relationships with as many of the students as possible.
The work has not been easy, and it is far from over. Cliatt-Wyman told ABC, “Each day, it gets scarier.” A student recently informed her he had a “bullet with her name on it.” With the accessibility of weapons in the North Philly neighborhood, Cliatt-Wyman said, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable that he can get his hands on a gun and shoot me.”
Students Coming to Learn
Despite the fear and challenges facing the new Strawberry Mansion principal, she sees hope in the school as well. Cliatt-Wyman has met many students who come to the high school to learn every day, and overcome their fears and personal obstacles in hopes of achieving an education and a better life. Some deal with absentee parents and shoulder much of the burden of the family as well as their schoolwork. Others grapple with problems like bullying that can distract them from their studies. Some have been in detention centers and are trying to get their lives back on track.
Recently, William Hite, superintendent for Philadelphia, announced Strawberry Mansion would not close with the other schools on the list. Hite state at the Notebook that Strawberry Mansion was a unique opportunity “to create schools with high-quality programs that will be an attraction to students that live in the area – and beyond.”