Gun violence has shaped the school year for thousands of Philadelphia students, but few have been impacted as profoundly as those at Roxborough and Walter B. Saul High Schools, where the shooting deaths of young students bookended the academic year.
The trauma began in September, just weeks after teens returned to class, when gunfire erupted outside Roxborough after a football scrimmage. Five teenagers — including four Roxborough players — were shot, and 14-year-old Nicolas Elizalde, a freshman at Saul who played football for Roxborough, was killed.
And most recently, just three weeks before summer break, Roxborough students lost another friend when freshman Randy Mills, 15, was fatally shot on a SEPTA bus.
The losses shaped the year in ways large and small — from students struggling to concentrate in class to teachers bracing themselves as they read news of another teen shot, fearful that it might again be one of their students.
Nick and Randy’s classmates struggled to put into words the pain of losing friends and classmates so violently. Many were at the football game last September, and they say the sounds of gunfire and of Nick’s mother screaming for help are seared in their memories.
“Anyone there, they will never forget it,” said Faith Bush, 16, a junior at Roxborough. “It changed the school.”
But Bush said she and her classmates are not defined by the violence they endure — and they deserve better.
“Yes we had tragic moments,” she said. “But our school is very loving and nurturing. It’s a school with good opportunities, but the good things get covered up.”
On Monday, Bush stood alongside dozens of people outside Roxborough as the school unveiled a mural honoring Nick’s life. The piece, sponsored by Mural Arts and designed by Calo Rosa, celebrated many of Nick’s passions: his Chicano roots, animals, the environment, football, and his Muslim religion.
The artwork, extended across the south-facing corner of the school building and just a few feet from where he was killed, was a way for his classmates and family to reclaim the site.
“This space does not belong to his killers. This space does not belong to violence,” said Meredith Elizalde, Nick’s mom. “It belongs to us. It belongs to his memory. It belongs to the students who have to pass it everyday in an unsafe city just to get to school.
“We are taking it back.”
The path to that moment wasn’t easy.
“Our school has been under an extreme amount of stress,” said Rusty Thurlow, a math and special education teacher at Roxborough. “We’re really still coming out of the pandemic, and now we have these tragedies. It’s been tremendously emotional.”
“We have students from all over the city,” Thurlow said. “You hear something on the news and you think, ‘Is that another one of our kids?’”
Thurlow knows that Roxborough, where three other students have been injured in shootings this year, is not alone in this pain.
As of Monday, 179 Philadelphia district and charter school students had been shot, and 29 had been killed this academic year. Among those who died: Devin Weedon, 15, shot during a robbery on his way to school; Jaseem Thomas, 16, a junior at Philadelphia Learning Academy South, walking to catch the trolley; and Neko Rivera, 15, shot 10 times outside Samuel Fels High School.
“People act like we’re just kids, that this is an adult topic, but it’s not,” said Isis Feristin, a junior at Saul. “We see it every day on social media, so it’s more of a worry for us.”
Feristin said Nick’s death made students feel uneasy returning to school, like nowhere was safe. She said she struggled to focus in class, overcome by a looming fear that she could be next.
She helped start a school group called the Equity Coalition so students could gather to talk about issues in their communities or personal lives. Gun violence became a frequent topic, she said.
Several students, including Feristin, said they want to see greater mental health support in their schools. Two days of counseling after a tragedy is not enough, they said.
“Grief is such a long process,” said Talayah Crabbe, 16, who will be a senior at Saul in the fall. “We need more support for the long-term effects. … There are still kids within my school who are hurting because of Nick’s death but have no outlet for their emotions.”
At Roxborough, the pain is fresh after losing Randy Mills, whom Bush described as a free-spirited person who loved to make his friends laugh. Whenever Bush saw him in the halls, she said, he would check in on her and ask how she was doing.
“He really cared,” she said.
The students said they will fight for their classmates to always be remembered — and to make it clear to city and state leaders that the level of violence they’re experiencing cannot be accepted.
“I don’t want this to be part of our new norm,” Bush said. “This is not normal.”
Students and teachers hugged each other and cried at Monday’s mural ceremony, just the day before summer break would officially begin. Despite everything this year has thrown at them, they made it through.
But there was a sense of unease, no clearer than in the final words from Roxborough principal Kristin Williams Smalley.
“Keep the children of our city covered in prayer as we dismiss for the summer,” she said, before turning to hug Nick’s mother.