Philadelphia - Since September, barely a week has passed without the violent death of a Philadelphia school student.
The death toll of young people shot, stabbed and strangled grew almost unnoticed until the brazen shooting of 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs, who was fatally wounded near his school on Feb. 11. His death made the entire city examine how violence is making victims of schoolchildren.
Today, thousands are expected to walk in silent protest as part of what is being called the Palm Sunday March to Save the Children.
They plan to take to the streets of Faheem's North Philadelphia neighborhood, led by Faheem's mother, along with Cardinal Justin Rigali and other grieving families, in hopes of sparking a change and saving a young life.
"Every child has a right to be safe," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and a cosponsor of the march.
This academic year is shaping up to be a deadly one. So far, there have been 23 student deaths since September. Most of those deaths were homicides.
The total number of homicides in Philadelphia has been increasing since 2000. The number of victims ages 5 to 18 has been growing even more quickly. In 2000, school-age children made up 9.4 percent of Philadelphia's homicide victims. Since Jan. 1 this year, they make up 13.4 percent of the total.
They include a student from Simon Gratz High School who died after being punched during a pickup basketball game, a 10-year-old girl from Olney Elementary School who died in an arson fire, and a kindergartner at Elkin Elementary School who was strangled with a jump rope.
It's been a year when students confronted teddy-bear-filled memorials, classmates wearing clothes emblazoned with images of lost loved ones, and hallways lined with signs such as those at Dobbins High School: "Rest in peace, Bubba. We love you."
Just Friday, hundreds of mourners turned out to the Reformation Lutheran Church in Mount Airy for the funeral of Ramone Valentine. The 16-year-old student at Martin Luther King Jr. High School was found shot to death on March 24 in a park near his Olney home.
"It's very sad, and we all are grieving. It doesn't make sense," said Gregory Hailey, the school's ninth-grade principal.
For the first time, the public school district is counting the deaths of students and making an organized effort to let families know they can obtain burial assistance. Teachers and administrators say they are tired of summoning grief counselors to schools.
Simon Gratz High School has lost four students since September.
"It has been a hard year," said English teacher Katie McGinn, who has taught at Gratz for three years. "To see it happen over and over again has been hard."
One of her classes included a student who died, as well as the brother of another.
"At the end of the semester, we talked about doing some kind of memorial," she said. "Now I have a group of students who meet every Friday on their own time from that class."
The group, she said, is planning a mural of the four Gratz students who have died this year.
The heartache is even greater for family members.
Kim Thach is still haunted by the anguished cries of her 10-year-old daughter, Thiayanna Son, who perished in an arson fire Feb. 29.
"Mommy, help me!" she had called.
"I tried to find my daughter," Thach recalled last week as she wiped away tears. "I could not find my daughter."
Thiayanna, a fourth grader at Olney Elementary School, died at Temple University Hospital an hour after someone ignited a flammable liquid at the rear of the family's three-story twin. No one has been charged in the crime.
"She was so beautiful, and she was growing so fast," Thach said. "God brought her here to me. I don't know why He took her so soon."
"I refuse to accept the notion that poor communities have to be violent communities," said Paul Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District. He cited an effort in Boston in the early 1990s that led to a dramatic reduction in youth homicides using programs to get guns off the streets, reduce gang violence, and build on community services.
"We're going to be vigilant about this," he said.
The Police Department, the school district, and community groups are offering rewards topping $5,000 for the conviction of child killers. The reward in Faheem's case tops $100,000.
There were 39 killings of school-age children in all of 2003, up from 27 in 2002. From January to March 30, there have been 11.
Homicides for all ages climbed to 348 in the 2003 calendar year from 288 in 2002, and police said they need community help to keep 2004 from continuing that trend. As of March 30 this year, there have been 82.
Police officials say they are at a loss to stanch the bloodshed.
"There is no way you're going to stop homicides. Homicides are up across the country. These cases are happening inside homes," Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson said.
The district and the police note that all but one of the homicides occurred away from school grounds and that most took place near the victims' homes. Officials such as State Rep. Jewell Williams and the NAACP's Mondesire - the cosponsors of today's march - are counting the children who die violent deaths and trying to shake up complacency in the hardest-hit areas of North and West Philadelphia.
"The foremost purpose of the March to Save the Children is to address the need to protect our children from drugs, guns and human predators," Mondesire said.
"This is a silent march, meant to mark a solemn moment in our city's history," Mondesire said. "All marching bands will play muffled drums. All banners will reflect the serious nature of this coalition and its attempt to pay respect to the memories of so many young children who have been slaughtered in our city."
More than $10,000 has been donated to the march from a broad spectrum of businesses and organizations, including Citizens Bank, Tastykake, Clear Channel Radio, and AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47.
Williams said the aim of the event is to bring parents and children together to speak out against violence. But Williams said the effort should not stop with today's march and rally.
"We want people to bring their children. We will have children speaking out on issues that concern them," Williams said. "We want to mobilize parents to join the PTAs and to join town watches and to monitor our playgrounds."
Bilal Qayyum, coleader of Men United for a Better Philadelphia, an antiviolence group, said his group would increase its presence on city streets and has stepped up the number of schools it visits to talk to students.
"We tell them that they don't have to fight out every argument," Qayyum said. "Some problems kick off in the neighborhood and go to the schools and then grow and then come back into the neighborhoods."
The march will end with a rally featuring student speakers.
Johnson, who has urged all off-duty police officers to attend in uniform, said the march is "about saving human lives whether they are 5 years old or 50 years old."
Considering that other people are still sought in the killing of Faheem, Johnson said, "I'd like to see people get so angry that they come out and help us solve this crime."
Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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