Katika Travis was out at the mall doing some holiday shopping when she came across something she’d searched high and low for the past two years: a black coat from Guess, identical to the one her son Bryson loved but had been ruined during a fight at school. She’d wanted to replace it ever since.

But when she saw it, she had to leave, no longer able to bear being in public. Bryson Hudson was shot and killed in August, dead at 16, and the coat was a painful reminder of what Travis has lost.

“My son is gone forever,” she said. “I keep trying to say that to myself so I can understand. It’s like I’m speaking a different language to myself.”

Hudson is one of at least 22 teens between the ages of 13 and 18 who were shot and killed this year as of Dec. 9, the most recent date for which data is available. The Baltimore Banner’s analysis of youth gun violence focuses on 13 to 18-year-olds because those are the ages that have been shot in record numbers.

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Another 122 were shot and survived. The city will likely record fewer than 300 homicides this year, a grim milestone that has become a public safety barometer of sorts, but Baltimore’s young people were shot and killed at the highest rate in at least a decade, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis of police data.

The increase in the number of youths being shot is not unique to Baltimore. Nationally, the homicide rate for people ages 15 to 19 increased 91% from 2014 to 2021. Nearby Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., have also seen increases.

The jump coincides with pandemic closures of schools and public gathering spaces, and researchers and community members point to the role of social media in driving gun violence among younger populations.

Young people in Baltimore have been shot outside of schools in broad daylight and in public housing complexes during the dead of night. On the East and West sides, in parks and at the Inner Harbor. Yet no incident underscores the danger the city’s teens face like this summer’s mass shooting during an annual celebration at the Brooklyn Homes public housing complex on the city’s south side.

Prays are shared by, We Our Us, group near Glade Court in Brooklyn after a shooting early Sunday morning, Monday, July 3, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

The sprawling block party had gone into the early morning hours of the first Sunday in July when gunshots rang out. Hundreds of people fled the area in confusion and fear, leaving destruction and death behind. Among the partygoers was Aaliyah Gonzalez, an 18-year-old from across the county line who had been out with her friends to celebrate her recent high school graduation.

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She was an artist and had plans to attend Anne Arundel Community College. She was shot in the head, one of 30 people shot that night, the majority of them teenagers. She died on the spot. Police draped a white sheet over her body and called her mom to come identify her.

A photo of Aaliyah Gonzalez, who was killed in the mass shooting in Brooklyn.
Aaliyah Gonzalez, 18 (Metro)

Krystal Gonzalez, sometime after 1 a.m., walked across a debris-covered parking lot toward her daughter’s body. When she got to the white sheet, she screamed in horror.

It’s something Krystal Gonzalez says she will never forget. She still cannot sleep through the night, playing the sequence over and over in her head. Even the procedural aspects of losing a loved one can render people incapacitated by grief. A few weeks after the shooting, she logged into her computer to remove Aaliyah from her insurance policies. The task, a few clicks, felt impossible.

“I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t press the button to delete her for a long time,” she said. “I sat at my computer and cried, because I’m supposed to take care of her.”

The City Council held an oversight hearing in September as part of its examination of the Police Department and other agencies’ failures in preparing for the Brooklyn Day party (no police were present despite knowledge of the event and several reports of armed people present), but cut it short after Krystal Gonzalez’s stirring testimony.

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Krystal Gonzalez, mother of 18-year-old Aaliyah Gonzalez, who was shot and killed at the Brooklyn Day event, plays a video of her daughter's body being discovered for the City Council. She said the video haunts her. (Baltimore City Council)

Though the Brooklyn Day shooting was the primary driver of the year-over-year increase in teen shootings, youth shootings would still be up 15% if it hadn’t happened.

The city’s response to gun violence and young people has been mixed; it pinballs among punitive responses, like curfews, greater investment in youth services, and outreach, to calls from elected officials for parents to be more involved in their children’s lives. Officials have suggested juvenile crime is rampant, pointing to a surge in car thefts that they say kids are largely responsible for, despite a report from the Department of Juvenile Services that found children are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators.

The number of youths carrying guns is on the rise post-pandemic, according to police data. Researchers point to relatively easy access to firearms coupled with young people’s pervasive fears and need for self-preservation as being partially behind the increase. Police recovered shell casings from at least a dozen firearms after the Brooklyn Day shootings. Nationwide, firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens between the ages of 1 and 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The human brain does not fully develop until a person is 25, and the areas of the brain that have to do with decision making and understanding the consequences of one’s actions are among the last to do mature.

One person has died and four others were injured in a mass shooting at the Edmondson Village shopping center Wednesday morning.
One person has died and four others were injured in a mass shooting at the Edmondson Village shopping center Wednesday morning. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Longtime former Edmondson Westside High School principal Karl Perry said it’s easier than ever for young people to get guns. He’s observed an increasing number of children are “angry” and don’t fear the consequences of pulling a trigger. Even then, they aren’t necessarily bad kids, Perry said — they just need more support.

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A Banner analysis found that during the 2022-23 school year about 1 in 5 high school-aged teens were shot within two blocks of a school during school hours. Seven were killed. So far this school year, four teens have been shot near a school.

In January, five Edmondson Westside students had cut class and were standing across the street from the school outside of a Popeye’s restaurant in a strip mall parking lot. At 11:18 a.m., two people came around the side of the building and unleashed a fusillade of bullets. Four of them were injured and another, 16-year-old Deonta Dorsey, died. School papers stuffed into a backpack were visible from the other side of the police tape. Dorsey was one of five Edmondson students killed in two school years. A 16-year-old was arrested and charged with murder in Dorsey’s killing.

Perry retired five months later.

“I needed to step away because I was tired of burying children,” he said. “I’ll speak to families now, but right now I just can’t take the funerals anymore. I can’t take the funerals, seeing children in a coffin. I can’t take seeing other children in despair after losing a peer.”

The family and friend of 16-year-old Edmondson, Dennta Dorsey who was the student killed yesterday, during a press conference at the Edmondson Village, site of the shooting. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Described by his family as a quiet child who looked out for his siblings, Dorsey now exists for his grandmother only in family pictures. Donna Ashe-Spriggs said she cannot bear to drive by the shopping center where her grandson was killed, and dwells on the lack of political action to reduce easy youth access to guns. She hopes more can be done to help young people who are in need of “deep rehabilitation.”

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“I know they gotta be lost,” she said. “To even make a choice like that, to take somebody else’s life, they don’t have no guidance.”

Dr. Michelle Melicosta, medical director of the inpatient rehabilitation unit at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said her staff has grown increasingly discouraged by the number of young shooting patients they are treating — the number of kids with bullet wounds referred to Kennedy Krieger has more than tripled over the past five years. As a result, the staff have started discussions about how they can help prevent future gun violence.

“How do we deal with poverty? How do we deal with social injustice? It feels overwhelming, but it also feels that we don’t really have the luxury of saying ‘Gee, that feels overwhelming. I’m just going to stay here and take care of my patients,’” Melicosta said.

Kiran, 8, and Taylor, 6, hold up signs that say "Don't Shoot. We Want to Grow Up" during a Safe Streets Peace Walk on July 7, 2023 in Brooklyn. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

In her personal capacity, Melicosta joined a national group of pediatricians, #OnCall4Kids, and spent a day this fall at the U.S. Capitol lobbying for more stringent gun control measures.

Baltimore’s porous social safety net often leaves its most vulnerable residents hanging by a thread, and that is exacerbated for young shooting survivors or teens exposed to violence in their neighborhoods, said Heather Warnken, executive director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

“Young people are more vulnerable,” Warnken said. “The stakes are higher when we intervene, or don’t, in terms of how that might change a young person’s trajectory.”

Mayor Brandon Scott’s office, in an effort to address the issue, has allocated millions of federal pandemic dollars to outreach and assistance programs in the hopes of preventing future violence.

“I needed to step away because I was tired of burying children. I’ll speak to families now, but right now I just can’t take the funerals anymore. I can’t take the funerals, seeing children in a coffin. I can’t take seeing other children in despair after losing a peer.”

Karl Perry, former Edmondson Westside High School principal

Katika Travis, Bryson Hudson’s mother, said she wishes someone had intervened with her oldest son sooner. Maybe, she said, it could have saved his life.

A loved one hugs Tika Travis, the mother of Bryson Hudson, 16, who was shot and killed this past August. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

In the weeks and months since Bryson’s death she’s been adjusting to a new normal for her and her younger son. There is an open seat at the table during the holidays and fewer clothes and gifts and school supplies to buy. Life will have to go on, Travis said, because she doesn’t have the option to wallow in grief. There are bills to pay and her younger son needs his mother more than ever. But the future will be different — how could it not be?

“I used to want to buy a big house and wanted to go somewhere where my sons could go play in a field,” Travis said. “I still want to move, but I don’t want the big house anymore. I don’t need it.”

Banner data reporter Greg Morton contributed analysis to this article.

A graphic in this story has been updated to define the 13 to 18-year-old age range as high school-aged teens, not juveniles.