When the leaders of University Prep Charter High School learned that a freshman was shot and killed Friday afternoon a few blocks away from campus, they didn’t wait until school resumed to give students and staff a space to grieve.
On Saturday morning, they opened the South Bronx school’s doors to students, staff, or parents who wanted to talk to a counselor or share memories of 16-year-old Angellyh Yambo.
“The goal was to give students a space to speak their emotions and be heard and connect with each other and not feel so alone in their grief,” said Andrew Ayers, the principal of University Prep. “We’re hurting as a community; you have to heal as a community.”
Yambo was caught up in gunfire on her walk home from school but was not the target of the shooting, according to police. Two other teens were wounded but have survived their injuries. A 17-year-old boy was charged with murdering Yambo.
As students and staff try to make sense of what happened, Chalkbeat spoke with the school’s principal about plans to honor Yambo, assuaging students’ fears about neighborhood violence, and confronting the tragedy beyond its immediate aftermath.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about Angellyh Yambo?
Angellyh was not the student who was out there and the first one to put her voice into the mix. But she did have a presence to her. She was very much like the caretaker of the group, kind of like the mama bear of all the classes. She was a great person to pair with somebody who presented difficult behaviors because she just was immune. She was just very pleasant, very easy to work with, and very well-liked by her peers.
I’m sure this was a really devastating loss for the school community. Have you made any adjustments or given staff any guidance on how to talk about what happened?
We opened the school up [Saturday], because we didn’t want to wait till Monday. We had about 75 to 100 students, and a good chunk of the faculty, all of our guidance counselors, and a few counselors from across our network.
We made it known Friday night that we would be doing this. Students didn’t have to sign up; they could just show up. And they sort of came in and out that whole day.
In addition to our own folks, we got some great support from the district office of the [education department], and they sent grief counselors. The Charter Center, the [United Federation of Teachers] — they were all very helpful.
What was Monday like?
We did strategize with those various teams and grief counselors. They have a lot of experience in this. Unfortunately, too much experience in this. Tragedy is at an all too alarming rate in the area.
We leaned on a lot of their best practices. They had a lot of support documents that I was able to share with teachers. We went around, we spoke to students about processing grief and allowing space. And we provided access to all those great resources that I mentioned. Those counselors [were back Monday] from the district office and the UFT and from the Charter Center and from our own counseling staff.
We gave teachers sort of like an FAQ about how to approach things that had some support documents about the right things to say. And we sort of went through that at an early staff meeting. And we went around to the classes. The students have been availing themselves of those grief counselors when they need it.
How did you first hear of the shooting?
Some students, I think, were alerted to some local news that it was happening. And so some of my admin team sort of looked into it. And then at the same time, the police came to us with the information. We have a school uniform — she was wearing the uniform.
What went through your mind?
I start to think about what do we have to do for everybody? What can we do for that family? What can we do for our school community? How are we gonna make sure that they’re able to manage this?
Whether she was here for years, or one year, she’s a community member, and the loss of any single community member affects the community and changes the landscape of things. So we had to start planning for what we could do.
We were able to get in contact with the family and offer our support and our condolences. You know, you just got to go into response mode: What has to be done next? What’s the right step? How are we going to let the community know because they have rumors they don’t have facts?
What kind of reaction have you been getting from the community?
Shocked. A bit of outrage that this could and would happen. That’s true of both staff and students, that they have that sort of sense [of] ‘I can’t believe this happened but why does this have to happen?’ And what can be done about this and looking for a way to be helpful.
The students have been great. They’re so supportive. I was giving the example that, you know, some students were [saying] is having school the best idea? Maybe we should take time. But having been here Saturday, it was obvious that we’re hurting as a community, you have to heal as a community.
Tell me about the event on Saturday to give the community a chance to process what happened — how did that come together?
I think our executive director said, ‘hey, we just open the doors tomorrow.’ And we said, ‘yep, that makes perfect sense.’
The goal was to give students a space to speak their emotions and be heard and connect with each other and not feel so alone in their grief. And that’s exactly what happened.
I mean, some of them were here the whole time [from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.]. And maybe they weren’t even talking about their feelings for every second of it. And that was important, too. Just having that space to be together, be reminded of the community that they’re a part of.
So we separated the spaces, so that way if teachers needed their own space they could have that. And parents had their own space. And a few parents came — mostly they were there to support the kids that didn’t necessarily talk as much. And the students had their own space. And we had classrooms set up. And each room had some of the grief counselors in there. And some of it, like I said, was a more formal conversation. And some of that was like informal reminiscing about Angellyh and her life and some of their favorite memories of her.
Some students might feel kind of scared or unsafe walking to and from school. Have you given any thought to how to make students feel like they can come to school safely?
Yes, though it is worth noting that there’s only so much you could do. This was a random thing. She had no connection to these folks. In a way those things are the hardest to prepare for because there’s nothing you can do in a moment that could have changed that.
But in a general sense, you’re right, it does affect everyone’s sense of safety. So we have already spoken to school safety and other folks involved at the higher levels in the [education department] and the Charter Center and things like that about ways to increase school safety, presence and police, which needs to happen in this area anyway. It’s just a painful reminder of how important those things are.
Has any of that started yet?
We got a lot more school safety agents [Monday] morning. We had police presence.
NYPD has a ‘safe passage’ program where police are stationed on routes where groups of students often walk to school. Did your school have that before?
It did not. But it is something I would like.
You had alluded to the fact that there had been some concerns about safety sort of in the area immediately around the school. Has any of that directly affected the school community before now?
They’ve all been directly affected, but it doesn’t show itself in every moment. When you have to change routes that you walk home from school or when you have to step by people who are using drugs or anything like that, it affects you. It may not play the direct role in that moment, but it’s on your mind, and it does impact your worldview.
After today, how does the school community confront this tragedy?
This is not going to be a day thing. We are going to need continued support for our students, so the counselors will be here for at least a week. We’ve got a lot of offers for support from every organization with an acronym, and I’m gonna take advantage of all of it, if I have to. I want to make sure that students have that support.
We’re a small school, a community school that is definitely supportive of one another, and we listen to the students. So we’re gonna see what they need, and how much more support they need.
We are going to figure out the best ways to celebrate [Angellyh’s] life and find a more permanent memorial for her in the school, something to dedicate to her and make sure that we don’t lose track of the fact that she’s in our hearts and minds.
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org