Philadelphia students take over school board meeting

The Philadelphia Board of Education voted 7-2 on March 28 to mandate metal detectors in all city high schools. Angered student activists, teachers and their supporters responded by shutting down the meeting and taking over board members’ seats.

All 49 city high schools now have metal detectors, but three schools — Science Leadership Academy, Science Leadership Academy at Beeber and the Workshop School — do not mandate their use.  

SLA Beeber senior Amir Curry stated that metal detectors criminalize students, who do not “view the policy as a safeguard of their health and safety.” Curry is a member of the youth organizing group Philadelphia Student Union which led the protest.

Naveli Perez, who attends the Academy of Palumbo where detectors are used, said the metal detectors make students feel like “criminals waiting to happen.”

PSU Executive Director Julien Terrell told the board: “We do not recognize your vote! We do recognize your legitimacy!” Terrell, who denounced the board for ignoring student demands, was eventually surrounded by police but not arrested.

When it became clear that the students chanting, “Whose schools? Our schools!” were not stopping, Board President Joyce Wilkerson recessed the meeting, and board members left to reconvene in private.

Members of PSU and the activist teachers’ group, Caucus of Working Educators, then took over the board seats, declaring themselves “The People’s School Board.” They continued to hear from speakers, many voicing disappointment over the recently elected school board, which had promised to be better than the previous School Reform Commission, target of numerous protests over several years.

Two of the new board members, Angela McIver and Mallory Fix Lopez, opposed the new “security” policy. Lopez pointed out that the metal detectors create distrust among students and negatively impact both mental health and academic achievement. The two student board members, Julia Frank and Alfredo Praticò, also oppose metal detectors but are prohibited from voting.

In private session after leaving the public meeting, the school board voted to adopt a $3.4 billion 2019-20 budget, despite previous promises to make all school board business public. Activists with the Alliance for Philadelphia Public School stated the vote was illegal, in violation of the Sunshine Act guaranteeing public access to board meetings.

Students, teachers and community activists are organizing to address the real problems impacting student health and safety in the schools: lead, mold, asbestos, rodent and insect infestations, contaminated drinking water, plus outdated and broken heating and cooling systems in many buildings. A petition will be delivered to the City Council on April 15 demanding $170 million for urgently needed repairs, to be obtained by ending a 10-year property tax abatement.

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