Northeast Times

Vandals are persistent at Bustleton Avenue library

A con­stant cleanup: Ac­cord­ing to the staff, stu­dents write graf­fiti on the Free Lib­rary’s Bustleton Av­en­ue Branch be­fore and after school. Everytime it hap­pens, the lib­rary staff cleans it up and paints over it, only to find more graf­fiti with­in a couple

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 wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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