FitzSimons-Mansion merger an explosive mix

Posted: November 21, 2011

THOMAS FITZSIMONS High, in North Philadelphia, is scheduled to close. If it does, many of its students will be sent to Strawberry Mansion High School, just a few blocks away.

Kamoni Trippett, a ninth-grader at the all-boys FitzSimons, has a prediction about how that will turn out:

"There's going to be a lot of fights."

Trippett said he's not scared - "I'm not scared of nobody" - but a lot of students are.

Alex Skupienski, a pint-size seventh-grader at FitzSimons, knows why.

"The whole rival thing."

Actually, calling the relationship between FitzSimons and Strawberry Mansion a "rivalry" might not do it justice. Rivalries involve sports teams and marching bands. According to residents and police, FitzSimons and Strawberry Mansion draw from two neighborhoods that have been clashing for decades, often violently. Putting the students in the same building together could lead to serious problems.

"Mansion has beef with FitzSimons," said Anna Figueroa, an active parent of a former FitzSimons student. "Mixing those two is going to be a big mess."

The School Reform Commission is expected to vote in the spring on whether to close FitzSimons and other schools, changes aimed at reducing the district's 40,000 empty seats.

Police said some tensions between FitzSimons and Strawberry Mansion students exist because of drug-dealing gangs that occupy specific territories. Others are just the result of animosity among groups that identify with specific blocks or micro-neighborhoods.

In Strawberry Mansion's immediate neighborhood, there are "Team-A," "Homi Boys," "Trey-0" and even some who claim to be part of the West Coast-based "Bloods," according to police. In the FitzSimons area, people identify with the "Porter Boys," "Bloodhound Brims," "215 Kings" and others. Police said one of the major dividing lines between the areas is 29th Street.

"These kids live on one street and they believe they are literally at war with the next street over," said Capt. Branville Bard, of the 22nd Police District, which covers the area. "They can't tell you why, but they consider each other mortal enemies."

Although he could not immediately name specific incidents, Bard said the divisions have sparked violence that has "run the full gamut, from harassment all the way up to and including murder."

Longtime residents and gang experts said the division originated in the 1970s and '80s when larger, tightly organized gangs from the areas sparred. Now, the antagonistic groups are smaller and more fluid, but the contempt remains.

"They are eight blocks apart, but these young people have an animosity for each other that's been passed down for years," said Malik Aziz, a former gang member who cofounded the anti-violence group Men United for a Better Philadelphia.

Aziz, who has worked with FitzSimons students, said moving them into Strawberry Mansion is a "bad move."

The district sees things differently.

District officials said they are aware of the hostility and will consult law-enforcement, community members and gang experts to create a "safety plan" to prevent violence at Strawberry Mansion.

Danielle Floyd, the district's deputy for strategic initiatives, said this change provides a rare opportunity to face the problems head-on.

"The issues aren't going to go away," she said. "We have to figure out who we can get together to solve them."

Residents are also concerned about the plan because Strawberry Mansion has been on the state's "persistently dangerous" schools list for the past three years. FitzSimons, on the other hand, was just removed from it this year after four years.

"I just pray that the school district will take another look at what they're doing," said Derrick Ford, founder of the Strawberry Mansion Athletic Association for youth, discussing the "persistently dangerous" list.

According to the school district, there were 46 serious incidents at Strawberry Mansion last school year. FitzSimons had 16. The schools had similarly sized populations in the district's calculations.

FitzSimons student Kaecsee Watson said he feels that Strawberry Mansion is more dangerous.

"My mom is a real caring person and she doesn't want me to attend a bad school she doesn't know anything about," he said.

Ford stressed that the school district should start preparing for the changes immediately - instead of waiting for the SRC to vote on the plan in the spring - because some FitzSimons students would be sent to Strawberry Mansion next September, just a few months later.

Floyd said the district's plans will be ready for implementation in September, but need to wait until the SRC's vote in the spring to roll all of them out.

For now, all people like Watson's mom can do is worry.


Holly Otterbein writes for It's Our Money, a project of the Daily News and WHYY funded by the William Penn Foundation, that aims to shed light on where your tax dollars are going.

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