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Out of tragedy, a teachable moment

January 27, 2015
In The News

By Wilford Shamlin III, Tribune Staff Writer

The fatal shooting last fall of a 15-year-old girl making her way home from school has grown into a teachable moment. Albert Einstein Medical Center helped pay for a program at the girl’s high school focused on helping resolve conflicts. The death of 15-year-old Aisha Abdur Rhaman did not involve a classmate. She was an innocent bystander who tragically was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But she was a student at the Delaware Valley Charter School, not far from the medical center near Broad Street and Olney Avenue, where the shooting occurred. Another student at the school was shot in an unrelated incident last February.

The $2,500 grant Einstein contributed, with assistance from state Rep. Brendan Boyle, was used to pay for a consultant who helped the school create a peer-led youth court that teaches students about the intricacies of the judicial system and how to conduct a proper trial. The program has led to improved student behavior and transforming the overall school environment, according to Keith Bailey, director of Interpersonal Violence Prevention for Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The students are really engaged in the program,” Bailey said. “They understand that they have the opportunity to create a better school for themselves; they typically respond positively and achieve success.”

Educators involved with the program said the youth court has worked so well that after-school sessions are being added to the youth court schedule, allowing students to hear and adjudicate more disciplinary cases. Bailey oversees weekly trials at the high school. Student interest in legal professions has been piqued by the youth court with some asking about the steps necessary to become an attorney. 2014 was the first time in a decade no Philadelphia public schools appeared on the state Department of Education’s annual listing of Persistently Dangerous Schools, generated from school data that included weapons, assaults, substance abuse and other offenses. The School District of Philadelphia has implemented a focus on changing the school culture at dozens of its public schools.
Meanwhile, another program developed at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) is aimed at also making a difference in city schools. Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice is planing to launch a website focused on the idea of creating safe havens for children and youth, said Jacquie Posey, a university spokesperson. Lorene Cary, a senior lecturer in the university’s English department, brainstormed the idea for creating a Safe Kids Stories initiative after serving on a safety committee convened by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in 2012.

“The [cultural] change Safe Kids Stories intends to make is to notice, study and celebrate safety. I’m talking relationships, emotions, social life, as well as physical security,” Carey said. The commission is a state-controlled panel charged with overseeing the city’s public schools. As chair of the safety committee, She heard numerous anecdotes about programs and strategies used to help make schools, classrooms and even the relationship between teachers and their charges into a safe place. She noticed those programs were created as a solutions to provide the “refuge that beleaguered communities need and caring educators yearn to provide.”

The website would work toward creating a social movement focused on answering the question of what makes children safe. It would include essays, videos, artwork, music, games and other content, curated by a work group that includes members from the public at-large. Content could also be contributed by college writers, artists, teachers, community leaders and students in kindergarten to 12th grade.