Bustleton Branch Library manager Kristin Sawka has a problem with George Washington High School students.
To clarify, the librarian’s issues aren’t with all Washington kids, just the few who, she says, have repeatedly marked up the library’s brick facades, reflective windows and blue railings with graffiti in recent months. Most of the scrawlings consist of the vandals’ nicknames or “tags” as well as profanity-laden warnings about “messing with us.” But in one instance, someone drew a swastika on the library, Sawka claimed.
The librarian further contends that high school teens also are to blame for several other nefarious incidents on library property, including a rubbish fire, fighting and intimidating library patrons. In recent weeks, she’s sought help from school administrators, local police and Somerton community leaders to restore the peace.
“Since January or February this year, it’s been more intense,” said Sawka, who’s been in charge of the branch at 10199 Bustleton Ave. since January 2011.
Police and school officials say they are trying to quell disturbances at the library, although they still consider Washington one of the least problematic public high schools in the city for its impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
“If you look at any high school, I don’t care if it’s in the Far Northeast, Overbrook or South Philly, every school has their incidents,” said Capt. Joseph Zaffino, commander of the 7th Police District. “I’m very pleased with the way things have been handled [at Washington].
“Everything that happens up there is addressed.”
Sawka made her recent problems a public issue on March 12 when she disclosed them during the monthly meeting of the Somerton Civic Association. In response, state Rep. Brendan Boyle offered to mediate a meeting with the librarian, the police captain and Principal Kathy Murphy. But the parties have since contacted one another independently.
Sawka reports that most of the incidents occur weekdays in the hour before students report to class and in the hour or more after daily dismissals. Most of the graffiti turns up in the morning, when the library is closed to the public, she said. The branch opens at 10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as 1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s closed weekends.
When the Northeast Times visited the branch on March 21, fresh graffiti was written on the lobby windows and railings. A crew from the city’s Community Life Improvement Program had removed other graffiti from the building one day earlier, according to the branch manager.
“They’ve made us a regular stop,” Sawka said of the anti-graffiti crew.
The low point graffiti-wise occurred on March 11 when library staff arrived to discover a Nazi symbol painted on the side of the building closest to the library parking lot and the high school. Also, someone had etched an expletive into the bricks. CLIP removed the markings two days later. Police launched an official investigation, but there have been no arrests.
“Any swastikas are considered ethnic intimidation and are investigated by detectives,” Zaffino said.
The other graffiti also remains under investigation, too, although it’s handled mainly at the patrol level. The 7th district captain said he plans to modify his manpower deployment to monitor the library in the coming weeks. If officers catch anyone red-handed, they’ll be arrested for institutional vandalism, he warned.
In the afternoons, Sawka said, the library is relatively calm until school dismisses at 2:39 p.m., then hundreds of students flock toward Bustleton Avenue to catch SEPTA buses. About 2,000 students attend Washington. Most board the buses and disperse within a few minutes. But several groups seem to linger outside the library, according to the branch manager.
Murphy, the school principal, acknowledges that some students don’t leave the area right away.
“The library used to let them stay and now they don’t,” Murphy said. “I think what they’re really doing is trying to find a spot to be social to each other and the bus stop is right there.”
As a public library, the branch actually wants teens to come inside and participate in the programs offered there, Sawka said. There’s a youth group that meets from 2:45 to about 4 each afternoon. They play games, help each other with homework and offer peer counseling. A couple dozen youths are involved, although many don’t show up every day.
“They all hang together and are really nice to each other,” Sawka said.
Similarly, Washington hosts a “Boost” after-school program offering homework help, tutoring, pizza parties and social activities. About 50 kids are involved, said Murphy, who is trying to grow the program.
Yet, those programs don’t seem to appeal to other young people who would rather loiter outside the library.
Murphy said she can’t do much about loitering because it occurs after school hours and outside school property. She recommended that Sawka identify the problematic youths and contact her. If they’re students, Murphy offered to notify their parents. The school also is planning to e-mail all parents with a general warning about possible sanctions against students who trespass on library grounds.
Murphy has other long-term plans to help with after-school issues. Starting next September, buses will be directed to pick up students behind the school and in the side parking lot, rather than in front, along Bustleton Avenue. This should improve safety by keeping kids away from traffic, while funneling students away from the library.
“We’re working on different strategies,” Murphy said. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org