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Philly’s homicide crisis through a year of virtual school | #schoolshooting | #parenting | #parenting | #kids


Angelo Walker, 15

On a Sunday night in July 2020, high school counselor Isabella DiBileo scrolled through an Instagram account called NoGunZone.

She was there out of habit.

NoGunZone posts breaking news about gun violence in Philadelphia and DiBileo often check if there have been shootings in the neighborhood where she works.

Weeks earlier, DiBileo had finished her first year as a guidance counselor at Frankford High School.

That night, she saw a dire headline about a shooting across the city in Overbrook.

“15-year-old shot in the head, found face down.”

DiBileo knew at least one 15-year-old from Overbrook. But after a pang of worry, she swallowed the thought and went to sleep. It couldn’t be.

Then, Monday morning, she learned that it was. A school social worker called DiBileo with the news.

“Angelo Walker was shot and killed last night.”

A pair of newcomers

Angelo Walker and Isabella DiBileo both arrived at Frankford High School in the fall of 2019 — he as a freshman and she as the 9th-grade counselor.

Angelo Walker pictured inside Isabella DiBileo’s office at Frankford High School. Angelo spent so much time in the office that he used it as his locker. (Courtesy of Isabella DiBileo)

When the year began, DiBileo got a call from Angelo’s mom.

She’d picked Frankford precisely because of its distance from Overbrook, DiBileo recalled. She wanted to protect him from the dangers that lurked in his neighborhood. And she asked DiBileo — 25 years old and in her first year as a high school counselor — to look out for her son.

In a school of nearly 1,000 students, DiBileo sought Angelo out and made sure he got his physical so he could join the football team. From there, an attachment grew.

“Before I knew it, he was just a regular. He didn’t use his locker. He used my office as his locker,” DiBileo said. “He would leave his coat in there — his books in there. Sometimes I had to physically push him out.”

With Angelo as ringleader, a small group of regulars formed around DiBileo. The other staff would jokingly call them “DiBileo’s kids.” They were a loyal bunch, none more so than Angelo.

One day another group of students tussled inside the counselor’s office, splashing water around the room and ripping items from the wall. DiBileo left in tears to report the incident. When she got back, Angelo had returned everything to its proper place from memory.

“He was just, like, my guy,” DiBileo said.

DiBileo grew up in Scranton, Pa. and was just a few years removed from college when she got to Frankford. She was scarcely a decade older than the ninth-graders on her roster, and fearful that the students wouldn’t warm to her.

Angelo’s respect and loyalty were a kind of validation. She belonged.

He had to leave his house at 5:30 each morning to catch a cascade of busses and trains to reach Frankford High — which meant he’d often arrive earlier than DiBileo.

“There would be days when I would get to school and he would be standing at my office waiting for me,” she said.

When she heard about Angelo’s death, DiBileo thought about what it would be like on the first day back in regular, non-virtual school. She pictured Angelo hanging outside her office. Now she had to reconcile that image with the fact that he was gone.

“He was why I was so excited to go back,” DiBileo said. “I was so excited to see Angelo.”

‘There’s just so much grief’

Every time a young person is shot in Philadelphia, the school district’s head of safety gets an alert. His team’s first move is to run their name through the district’s registration database, to find out if the victim is a student.

If the answer is yes, the district drafts a memo to alert administrators at whatever school the victim attended.

That message makes its way downstream to guidance counselors like DiBileo, who then must balance personal grief with their job duties.

After Angelo’s death, DiBileo helped organize a memorial at the school, started a fundraiser for funeral expenses, and called Angelo’s mom to offer emotional support.

Angelo Walker would often arrive to school early and wait outside Isabella DiBileo’s office until she arrived. (Courtesy of Isabella DiBileo)

It is an overwhelming experience, even for counselors accustomed to feeling overwhelmed.

“There’s just so much grief — so much grief and violence,” said Theresa Cheshire, who has been a counselor at Mastery Charter’s Pickett campus in Germantown for the past 8 years.

At her school, Cheshire said, there’s usually one horrific incident every school year when a student who either attends the school or plays on one of the network’s shared sports teams is killed. But violence touches the school far more frequently. She estimates that about 20 times a year, a relative or friend of one of her students is killed in the city.

Cheshire has found there’s a careful art to managing the grief of teenagers, and counselors don’t always get it right. Come on too strong, and students may feel suffocated with attention or embarrassed in front of peers.

Sometimes, the best remedy is a pat on the shoulder, a little space, and a bottle of water to flush out the fight-or-flight hormones that course through a body in times of acute stress.

“Sometimes you have to pause for a moment,” Cheshire said. “The worst has already happened.”

In Philadelphia, there are nonprofits that offer more specialized grief counseling.

At Frankford, DiBileo brought in a therapy group called Uplift Philly to offer weekly virtual counseling to students who were friends with Angelo or had otherwise been impacted by gun violence that summer. They called it a “legacy group” and gathered in a video chat regularly for six weeks to share memories of slain friends.

“There is no goal — other than to let you know that grief is permissible,” said Samantha Anthony, one of the Uplift clinicians.

That grief can manifest as sadness, laughter — even conflict.

When a person dies, it’s common for people to plaster their picture across social media with a hashtag. And it’s also common for close relations to grow resentful when they see someone who barely knew their friend posting about the killing online.

The grief may feel real to the person posting, but can also come across as cheap or attention-seeking.

“They can kind of get very territorial about their friend,” said Tiffany Chalmus, another one of the Uplift counselors.

It is a complicated stew of emotions, made all the more complicated by its immediacy.

“They’re not only grieving the loss of their friend and classmate,” said Crystal Wortham, an Uplift staffer. “They’re also looking at their own mortality.”

***

Until Angelo’s death in the summer of 2020, DiBileo had never known someone who was shot and killed.

Not so for the students in her grief group.

One of the students was 15-year-old Annabel Salvador, a sophomore at Frankford. In the past year alone, she’s lost two middle school friends — both gunned down in the city.

“The reason I can cope with it is because I’ve been hurt so many times and so many people died that there’s nothing left in me,” Annabel said. “I don’t even know how to react anymore. I’m just living. But I feel dead.”

Annabel Salvador has lost two friends to gun violence within the past year. “I don’t even know how to react anymore.” (Photo provided by family)

Annabel hears friends talk about revenge — getting even. She tries to ignore it. Whenever that empty feeling morphs into sadness or anger, she takes a hot shower and tries to go to sleep.

In her grief and fear, she’s developed a kind of tunnel vision.

“I feel empty. And I can’t do anything but keep motivating me to keep getting my grades straight and get out of Philadelphia and get into a good college and have a good job,” Annabel said.

After Angelo’s death, Isabella DiBileo started her own, informal check-in system for the students she knew would be reeling the most. A text here. A call there — just to make sure they knew she was around.

The correspondences ebb and flow. One week a student will text her non-stop. Then two weeks of silence.

One of the students she focused on most was a kid we’ll call Andre. We’re withholding his real name because he received threats after Angelo’s death.

Andre was one of Angelo’s closest friends. Like Annabel, his grief — at least in public — had a numbness to it. He’d lost relatives before. Angelo’s death came suddenly, but it didn’t shock him.

“He was just like, this is just a normal way to die for people in his life. It’s like having a heart attack,” DiBileo said of Andre. “‘Oh, they were shot and killed. It’s just another option for a way your life ends.”

Still, in private, Andre reeled. Andre’s grandmother and guardian, who asked to be identified as  Sonia Smith, said his “spirit changed” after Angelo’s death.

“He became more leery,” she said.

Andre started eating and sleeping less, to the point he became “almost an insomniac.” Smith would get up in the middle of the night to find her grandson alone and awake.

He still refuses to take public transportation. If Smith can’t drive grandson or pay for a rideshare, Andre simply won’t leave.

“He doesn’t know who he’s gonna run into — because something may happen,” Smith said.

Sonia Smith’s grandson was one of Angelo Walker’s best friends. After the shooting, Smith said, “his spirit changed. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Slowly, over the last half year, the clouds hovering over Andre seem to be lifting. A therapist friend of Smith’s volunteered to help Andre for free. Recently, he came to his grandmother and told her that he thinks he has PTSD.

To Smith, the admission felt like progress. Her grandson finally had words for the thing he’s trying to wrestle.

“It’s just not emotional. It actually becomes painful,” Smith said. “It sits in your chest. It sits like that knot you get just before you bust out in tears. But imagine that knot sitting there all the time.”

Smith knows that dread personally.

When she was Andre’s age, she saw a man shoot a boy on his bicycle in North Philadelphia. That’s the same way Angelo died — shot while riding his bike.

“It never goes away. You just learn how to deal with it,” Smith said. “You learn how to live with your trauma. It doesn’t go.”

Andre’s anxiety is not merely his own. His grandma feels it and absorbs it. She prays for him constantly. She won’t go to sleep until she knows he’s in the house.

She’s consumed with a thought that should be a given. She wants Andre to become an adult — literally.

“At the end of the day his main thing that he’s trying to do is survive,” Smith said. “His aspiration right now is to make it out of his teenage years.”

Goodnight

These webs of trauma and coping feel endless. Each death sends more ripples through a school: kids, parents, grandparents.

DiBileo is responsible for about 450 students, day to day.

She tries to figure out who’s hurting and offer a lifeline. But there’s no method for curing the pain of all the people scarred by a student’s death.

And there’s no method for curing her own.

DiBileo tends to cry when she gets angry. With Angelo, the frustration and indignation would build until, like a tea kettle, she’d boil over.

“Any time I’d think about him I’d get so mad,” DiBileo said. “The system and the city and how this is a reality for our kids — like I would immediately get angry.”

In her first year as a high school counselor, Isabella DiBileo found a kindred spirit in Angelo Walker. Now, she’s trying to grapple with his death — the first she’s experienced as a counselor. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Although this was DiBileo’s first time losing a student to gun violence, she knew — in her own way — that it was coming. That’s why she’d been browsing that Instagram page the night of Angelo’s death.

When you’re a school counselor in Philadelphia, the thought always hovers.

“I know that it could happen,” DiBileo said. “You don’t think it’s going to. But you know that it can.”

When DiBileo ends a text conversation with students, she likes to punctuate it with a little reminder. The exact words vary, but they all grow out of the same place and the same fear.

Be Safe.
Be Good.
Stay Safe.
Make Good Decisions.

Her last, long text conversation with Angelo happened in mid-June. She signed off with a familiar phrase:

“Be good out there.”

DiBileo added the praying-hands emoji.

Angelo texted back.

“Goodnight”

With a heart.

Three weeks later, Angelo Walker was dead. He was 15 years old.

***

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