Officer Raul Ortiz looked like a man completely comfortable in his profession and at ease with his surroundings. As we began our drive through one of the busiest districts in the city, one of the few that has their own radio band, it was only a short amount of time before my feeling of excitement was stomped upon by one of slight fear. “I’m going to take you to the hot areas,” Ortiz said with a smirk.
Truancy and dropping out plague the schools across Philadelphia and those in Hunting Park are no exception. Safety, however, is a chief concern in this district. We took a short drive up a very narrow block, as the eyes of all the neighbors honed in directly on the police cruiser. “You do have some good citizens out there,” Ortiz said encouragingly as we turn off of 5th St. This is coming from a man who was the first officer into a crowded fight not long back that turned ugly. There are fights, and then there are deaths. Moments later we passed a corner where a young man was shot multiple times and killed. Moments after that we drove past an entire block that was shut down due to drug problems. “You have a lot of good people out here, but they’re surrounded by the element of drugs,” he said.
The most difficult aspect of patrolling the district, Ortiz said, is the virtual gridlock that happens when schools let out. That’s without mentioning the drugs. The CEP Hunting Park School, for children who were expelled or have juvenile records, Roberto Clemente Middle School, Pantonjia Charter School and Thomas Edison High School are all within blocks of each other, creating a mass of students exiting at once on every school day. Ortiz notes that the majority of trouble and the reasons for most calls to the station happen during dismissal. “It’s hard to be everywhere at once,” he ensured me.
The Office of the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Advocate report for 2007-2008 shows a disturbing trend that only backs up the continued infiltration of drugs and fighting into the numerous schools in the Hunting Park area. The CEP school had 138 reported incidents last year with 23 resulting in arrest. Edison reported 257 incidents with 35 arrests. “I’d say 85 percent are excellent students,” Ortiz said of the students at Edison, “They just need a little guidance.”
“Neighborhood kids come to schools looking for trouble, I disperse them quickly because I know what they’re there for,” Ortiz said. The charter schools in Hunting Park carry no such problems, and neither do the elementary schools. The annual report shows a minimal amount of incidents to back that up. As the students progress however, the incidents become more frequent. “I locked up a kid who was 15 here at Edison for marijuana, he was a parent of two kids,” Ortiz said as he shook his head.
Looking strictly at the numbers, it’s hard to see light at the end of the tunnel for the schools in Hunting Park. People are being arrested and gunned down just blocks away from school entrances. Students bring their neighborhood rivalries and problems into the hallways of these institutions. It’s not the body of students that present the problem, as it rarely is, but rather bad elements influencing a few kids here and there.
As bleak as the report makes it out to be and as neglected as some of the district looks coupled with the massive problems they face, I take the word of Officer Ortiz. As a resident of the area for 40 years, he believes in the teachers and their abilities, and he believes that with enough positive influence, Hunting Park schools can find the light once more.