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In Philadelphia, School Lockdowns Take A Toll On Students


In the last decade, the School District Of Philadelphia averaged one lockdown every other school day. Sometimes it was because of a shooting on campus or near a school. And as Michaela Winberg reports from member station WHYY, repeated lockdowns are affecting the education system.

MICHAELA WINBERG, BYLINE: It was standard practice for Argelis Minaya-Bravo during high school, as ordinary as meeting with friends over the weekend or sitting through math class. First, she'd hear the gunshots.

ARGELIS MINAYA-BRAVO: I think it's not something that you just - like, you, like, forget.

WINBERG: Then she'd climb under her desk or cram into the coat closet with her classmates. For 10 or 20 or sometimes 45 minutes, Minaya-Bravo would wait and listen for the rippling sound of gunfire to fade to silence.

MINAYA-BRAVO: Your education being constantly, like, altered by violence.

WINBERG: When it did, the teacher would give the signal, and everyone would get right back to class.

MINAYA-BRAVO: It's kind of something that just stays with you.

WINBERG: Minaya-Bravo graduated high school in 2018. The following academic year, the gunfire got worse. There was a lockdown in the School District of Philadelphia almost every weekday. The most common reason - gunshots in a school's immediate urban neighborhood. Philly schools are also locked down for student fights or when someone brings a weapon to school.

For students young or old who've been through them, the lockdown experience can be chilling. Giavannah Gorham is a third grader. I met with Giavannah and her mom for lunch at a McDonald's two blocks from her school. Giavannah's elementary school has been locked down at least 13 times in the past decade.

GIAVANNAH GORHAM: It was just so scary for me. I mean, it's so scary, I don't even like it.

WINBERG: The incidents are scary for parents, too. Christina Gorham says she's not always notified when Giavannah's school gets locked down, which makes her worry about her safety.

CHRISTINA GORHAM: That's my only daughter. You can't prevent everything, but to be informed is better.

WINBERG: Even when a lockdown is over, it's not really over for everyone. Almost two years out of high school, Minaya-Bravo still struggles from the everyday reminders of neighborhood violence.

MINAYA-BRAVO: I would have, like, nightmares of like getting shot. Or I always dream of me getting shot. Like, I don't know why, but it's just always - even to this day, it's always the thing.

WINBERG: This isn't just a Philadelphia problem. Nancy Kislin is a family therapist and social worker in New Jersey. She wrote a book about lockdowns and says they're shaking up schools and traumatizing students all over the country at districts big and small, urban and rural.

NANCY KISLIN: Unfortunately, this is an issue that is affecting children from California, Texas to New Jersey. It doesn't seem to matter where you live.

WINBERG: So what can be done to help kids deal with the trauma? Kislin has an idea that she calls the two-minute pause. After a lockdown's over, she recommends teachers take a few minutes to help their students process the incident instead of jumping right back into instruction.

KISLIN: When the all clear comes, to take a few minutes to connect with your students, check in, see how they're doing, how are they feeling, acknowledging, wow, that wasn't normal. That was scary. And giving the children a chance to talk.

WINBERG: The National Association of School Psychologists published guidelines for schools all over the country to make lockdowns less jarring for kids, sharing details on social media or providing mental health assistance to students, something all too common now in Philadelphia, where schools have been locked down more than 700 times in the past decade.

For NPR News, I'm Michaela Winberg in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "NIGHT TROUBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaela Winberg