By Wilford Shamlin III of the Philadelphia Tribune
Students would feel less safe in Philadelphia’s public schools without student safety aides that are among school district employees whose positions are threatened by budget cuts needed to close a shortfall in excess of $300 million.
Students, parents, teachers and education advocates took that message to school district headquarters during a raucous but orderly protest on Wednesday, rallying for nearly two hours in support of safe schools and healthier school menus. Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools was joined by Youth United For Change, Philadelphia Home and School Council, Action United, and local unions representing hotel and stadium workers.
Juanita Jones, a food service worker, said she can’t help but think about the quality of the frozen, prepackaged foods that are served warm each week to thousands of public school students. She’s pushing for cafeteria food that is healthier and more appealing, because it may be the best meal that some students get all day.
“We just don’t know,” she said.
Shyann Williams, 16, who attends Kensington Urban Education Academy in North Philadelphia, said, “If I didn’t have to eat it, I wouldn’t want to.”
Protestors gathered at 440 North Broad Street, beating pots with utensils and their voices amplified above the sound of passing traffic and subways. Marching in a tight circle, they chanted in unison: “If you cook real food, they will be in a better mood. They won’t throw the food away.”
They carried placard signs and wore T-shirts with messages showing a united front against budget cuts that could worsen school conditions.
The School Reform Commission voted last week to adopt a budget that eliminates funding for key staff positions including assistant principals, guidance counselors, nurses and librarians. Budget cuts also target athletics and music programs.
School officials are looking to the city and state to help balance the budget. Mayor Michael A. Nutter has proposed increasing the liquor-by-the-drink tax and creating a new cigarette tax, amounting to $2 per pack, but getting it passed would take action by state lawmakers in Harrisburg. This week, Democratic State Sen. Anthony H. Williams announced legislation that gives the city authority to collect the new revenue.
The cigarette tax is projected to generate $45 million during its first six months and the liquor tax hike is expected to bring $22 million in new revenue for schools if the city council acts by July 1.
Doris Hogue, who is among 200 student safety aides fighting for their jobs, said their positions were essential to keeping schools safe because they can defuse tensions, preventing problems that could lead to intervention with school police or disciplinary action up to suspension or expulsion.
“I want parents to know we are always here for their children. We’re there to keep kids safe. When a child is not acting normally, we can almost tell exactly what that child needs. That’s the special touch we provide,’” Hogue said.
Williams said she would likely feel less safe in school if there were no school safety aides in her school because other staff members and administrators may not be available to students when they need help because they are trying to maintain order, handle disruptions or administer discipline.
Hogue said student safety aides are an extra line of defense against people who may try to sneak into the building, and it doesn’t always have to be the worst-case scenario as when a young girl was abducted from her elementary school and later assaulted.
Williams recalled a minor incident that involved a water balloon fight, started by students from the adjoining Kensington Business School who had found a way into her school. The wet floor was slippery, and she fell and hurt her ankle but did not require any medical care. “I walked it off,’” she said, laughing.
Migdalia Lopez, who is among roughly 1,500 student safety aides districtwide, wasn’t as lucky. She remembers being punched in the face about five years ago. It was her first day on the job.
“I believe the schools won’t be able to run properly if they don’t have noontime aides there to protect and monitor students,” she said. “We’re all in this together. Enough is enough. We’re just as important, and they need us.”
Contact staff writer Wilford Shamlin III at 215-893-5742 or email@example.com.