A year after death, gun violence echoes A community rallies, yet it remains plagued by shootings.

Posted: February 06, 2005

It's been nearly a year now since people gathered on this North Philadelphia sidewalk with candles, shed tears, and prayed for the 10-year-old boy whose face became the lasting image of children who meet violent deaths in the City of Brotherly Love.

It's that spot outside T.M. Peirce Elementary School, where the third grader and several schoolmates were walking Feb. 11 as bullets pierced the chilly morning, sending children screaming and scrambling for cover.

One bullet from the blazing gun battle struck Faheem Thomas-Childs in the head and sent the pleasant 10-year-old to the cold concrete, his bag of books still on his back. Crossing guard Debra Smith, who rushed to the children's aid, was shot in the foot.

Faheem's death, five days later, sent shock waves throughout this city where people, outraged that a gun battle had occurred so close to sacred school ground, cried out for change.

Heeding the call, preachers, teachers, parents and politicians collaborated on stop-the-violence plans. And in 12 months, much has been done to protect children better, to toughen punishment for drug crimes carried out with guns, and to revitalize neighborhoods ailing with joblessness and blight. But children still are dying, victims of gunfire.

"Prior to that incident, people were aware of the drugs and the guns in the community and how they were affecting the quality of life," said Alvin B. Little, president of the neighborhood merchants association. "We were having this outbreak of violence, but it was young adults dying. The real attention didn't come until a child was shot."

That attention sparked changes within Allegheny West, the tough community where Faheem lived and died.

It's the same community that drew African Americans nearly 40 years ago to better schools and safe streets.

Now, as on the day Faheem was shot, many residents still live in fear of retaliation if they talk to police. They ignore rewards reaching $100,000.

Kareem Johnson, 20, and Kennell Spady, 19, were arrested and later charged with the killing, but officers believe that more suspects are still at large.

After Faheem was shot, many parents began walking or driving their children to and from school. Politicians issued a 10-point blueprint for safety. Antiviolence groups such as Men United for a Better Philadelphia began watching over children and offering "safe corridors" to Peirce and other neighborhood schools.

"There are clearly more folks getting involved in fighting violence in the city," said Bilal Qayyum, cofounder of Men United. "There is more sensitivity about doing what's needed to protect kids."

The community's ubiquitous churches also made their presence known and some, such as Deliverance Evangelistic, forged partnerships with schools and other churches. They are offering more outreach to a community with pockets of revitalization, but a neighborhood where drugs are still common and jobs scarce.

"The community realized things had gone too far," said Deliverance's Rev. Diane Fauntleroy. "Now I see us all working together to make a difference. . . . Parents, teachers, churches, mosques, the walls are coming down."

"Don't come around . . ."

On a bitter cold morning last week, children toting backpacks and wrapped in bulky coats, hats and gloves scurried along quiet streets outside Peirce, at 23d and Cambria Streets.

Men United volunteers stood guard.

"There's no problem here now," said volunteer Thorman Taylor. He pointed to an area in the schoolyard where drug dealers used to gather: "Since they see us, they don't come around too much."

In some ways, 522-student Peirce, a gem in this neighborhood, has moved on with life. But there are still reminders of that day.

One mural depicts Faheem with other children smiling and holding hands, another mural includes the message "No Drugs Allowed."

"Security has been beefed up. It makes parents and the children feel better," said Terrell Parris, Peirce's new principal, noting that the school now has two district police officers and one Philadelphia police officer there during school hours.

And four after-school programs have been added since Faheem's death.

Former Peirce principal Shively Willingham 2d, who guided the school through the turbulent weeks after the shooting, has since accepted a job in the Philadelphia School District's central office.

"We learned a lot of lessons from that tragedy," said Willingham, who noted that his departure was not spurred by the shooting.

Despite the chaos, the school met all of its federal education goals and showed improved test scores. "There was such a coming together of staff and parents who made children feel at ease enough that they achieved on the test," Willingham said.

Faheem's death also affected the Philadelphia School District as a whole, said Paul Vallas, its chief executive officer.

"It was a watershed event. People are working closer together and much more aggressively at trying to find a solution on violence against our children," Vallas said.

Capturing the energy

In his North Broad Street office, State Rep. Jewell Williams (D., Phila.), who helped to organize the massive April 10 "March to Save the Children" with J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said Faheem's death galvanized the city and the Allegheny West neighborhood.

"When somebody comes in here with a violence problem, we can pick up the phone and talk with people," Williams said. "They weren't calling us before." Mondesire agreed, adding that the march had crystallized energy. "When you put 10,000 people on the street, you can do a lot. You can get the support of elected officials. The ripple effect is alive," Mondesire said.

State Sen. Shirley M. Kitchen (D., Phila.) plans to reintroduce legislation that would restrict firearms within 1,000 feet of schools and 500 feet of recreation areas.

State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who has rallied fellow lawmakers to make reducing violence a key legislative priority, points to a "Blueprint for a Safer Philadelphia" that last month led to the opening of a gun court.

"If we are going to talk about growing the city, you have to keep in mind that violence will impede growth," Evans said. "The point is to get everybody to know that it's in their best interest to get involved with this issue."

No feeling of safety

Parents say they have seen improvements. But some, such as Wandra Singleton, are taking no chances. She drives her daughter, Brandie Mills, 10, to Peirce each morning, then picks her up after school. Singleton says she may have Brandie switch schools.

"I began worrying after [Faheem] got shot, but she still wanted to walk," said Singleton, a nurse. "She was walking home the day of the shooting outside Dobbins, and I said, 'That's it, it's too dangerous.' Around here, you never know what will happen."

Allegheny West still must deal with events such as the shooting of James Boone, 18. It took place last month outside Murrell Dobbins Vocational-Technical High School.

The shooting came just yards from the rowhouse where Faheem lived; a makeshift memorial of stuffed toys, candles and R.I.P. notes marks the latest place of death.

"The neighborhood is still not safe," said William Hobson of North 23d Street.

For Rhonda Walton, 29, the extra police officers patrolling the streets made things feel safer - for a while.

That sense of safety was shattered in July when her father, Ronald Coleman, 51, was shot and killed in a robbery at his North 22d Street business, Margie's Catering & Party Rental.

Coleman, who didn't know Faheem's family, had taken flowers to the child's funeral at Deliverance Evangelistic Church. His own funeral would be held there, too.

"I don't feel it's a bad community, but the community can be much safer than it is," said Walton, who took over the business with her sister Helene, and keeps photos of their father on the shelves.

As Faheem's death became a beacon for the wider community, Coleman's resonated deeply in the historic business district where he had operated for nearly three decades.

"Since I've been here, 35 years, that was the first merchant killed," said Alvin Little, the merchants association's president. "Things are not the same."

Contact staff writer Dwayne Campbell at 215-702-7815 or dcampbell@phillynews.com.

Faheem - A Year Later

2004

Feb. 11 Faheem Thomas-Childs, a third grader on his way to T.M. Peirce Elementary School, is shot. School crossing guard Debra Smith is also shot. Community members offer a $15,000 reward.

Feb. 12 Religious leaders walk children to school. Police blanket the area as the reward reaches $60,000.

Feb. 14 Kennell Spady, 19, and Kareem Johnson, 20, are charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault in the shooting.

Feb. 16 Faheem dies of his wounds.

Feb. 17 The suspects are charged with murder.

Feb. 18 The reward reaches more than $100,000.

Feb. 19 Mayor Street vows to boost school safety measures, saying school shootings will automatically trigger a 72-hour police presence.

Feb. 20 Cassius Broaster, named one of the citys most dangerous men, is labeled a suspect.

Feb. 24 Faheem is buried by more than 2,500 mourners.

April 8 House Speaker John Perzel; State Reps. Jewell Williams and Dwight Evans; State Sen. Anthony H. Williams; and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, discuss ways to reduce violence against children.

April 10 The March to Save the Children is held in North Philadelphia.

June Community groups launch programs to keep youths off the streets.

July 6 Jerome Broaster, brother of Cassius Broaster, is arrested and charged with three gun violations.

July 15-21 Two neighborhood businessmen are killed, one after confronting drug dealers.

July 21 Barber Kevin Coles, who confronted and fought drug dealers who had vandalized his property near Peirce Elementary, is slain, reaf.rming residents fears of retaliation.

Summer Philadelphia police convene a grand jury.

October Paul Vallas, Philadelphias schools chief, invites religious leaders to work more closely with public schools.

Nov. 22 Jalil Speaks, a sophomore at Strawberry Mansion High School, is gunned down and three other students were wounded shortly after school let out.

Nov. 23 Vallas asks for two armed city police officers in about two dozen large high schools. The mayor and police commissioner spurn the idea.

2005

Jan. 5 James Boone, who dropped out of Simon Gratz High School, is shot in front of Dobbins Technical High School.

Jan. 12 Suspect Cassius Broaster is sentenced to 33 months in federal prison on another charge.

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