A day that was originally slated to raise awareness about gun violence turned into a protest at Girard College Thursday.
Students say the school dismissed their lived experiences and efforts to create a space where they could safely talk about their trauma when Girard canceled a summit meant to address gun violence and its aftermath with less than 24 hours’ notice.
“Gun violence is a plague on our communities,” said Autumn Allen, one of the juniors who came up with the event.
“All of us could be a victim. You don’t know where, you don’t know when it could happen. That’s why it’s important to highlight it and try to take control of it before it happens instead of seeking therapy in the aftermath.”
Almost a year ago to the day, Girard College students and faculty felt that aftermath. Kristopher Minners, a residential adviser at the school — known for his basketball and chess skills— was killed in a mass shooting on South Street. He’d been celebrating his 22nd birthday.
» READ MORE: Kristopher Minners, killed in the South Street shooting, was celebrating his 22nd birthday
Still, students said their grieving extends beyond their beloved adviser. The high school students came up with a list of 20 people they know who were killed in shootings.
Allen and fellow junior Christopher Garrison-Nelson said they wanted to do something for students silently dealing with insurmountable loss.
They started planning the event in January after taking a class called “My Community and Yours.” When the school hosted its annual Martin Luther King Day of Service, Allen and Garrison-Nelson connected with former State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who founded the CHARLES Foundation in honor of her son who was fatally shot in a case of mistaken identity. Since 2011, the organization that stands for Creating Healthy Alternatives Results in Less Emotional Suffering has worked in anti-violence campaigns, advocated for gun safety legislation, and connected those affected by shootings to therapy and other resources.
Allen and Garrison-Nelson worked with the foundation over the next several months to craft an itinerary and fundraise for what they called a “Youth Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery Summit.” The three-hour event would offer a mix of reflection and fun, bringing in Sankofa Healing Studios for trauma services, a speaker from the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health, as well as activities and live performances.
Johnson-Harrell said Girard College postponed the event — originally scheduled for early May — with a week’s notice because of a scheduling conflict. Organizers said they settled on rescheduling for Thursday only to learn in an email Wednesday afternoon that the event had “not been approved and authorized by the President.”
Allen and Garrison-Nelson said they were not given many details about the cancellation and they felt they had no recourse to push back. It was the “final straw” for the roughly 120-student body, which decided to protest.
The students marched through and around the executive administration building, chanting “Silence the violence, not our students.”
The students’ actions were backed by several staffers who joined them.
Barbara Walsh, Girard College Federation of Teachers union president, said Thursday was a teachable moment for students who learned that collective action is one way to push back.
“Part of our mission as educators, here specifically, is to raise active citizens and that’s what I think we did today,” said Walsh.
Students taped their signs in front of Interim President David Hardy’s office. Hardy met with Allen and Johnson-Harrell. Hardy, who could not be reached directly for comment, framed the cancellation as a misunderstanding, according to Johnson.
A spokesperson for the school said security, operations, and the president’s office had never fully vetted the event and the cancellation had “nothing to do with the issue or the topic” students were trying to address.
Still, the spokesperson couldn’t speak to claims students made about limited communication.
Johnson-Harrell said the meeting ended on a positive note for the two young organizers.
“At this point, [Allen] is going to decide what she wants to do next and we are going to support her with doing that,” said Johnson-Harrell.