One heard gunshots for the first time by fifth grade.
Another walked away, unfazed, from a shooting scene in seventh grade.
And yet another lost their family friend, whom they considered a cousin, to gun violence in 10th grade.
Some Baltimore high schoolers are feeling hopeless. They are avoiding leaving their houses, worried they will get shot. They are dealing with post-traumatic stress and mental illness after losing loved ones to violence. They are being shot in record numbers, even as nonfatal shootings and homicides are down — with many of these shootings involving teens happening near their schools. Since January, 15 teens have died from gun violence.
And yet, they say, no one is listening to them.
They know what some may say: that they are too young to understand, to make decisions, to know what is good for them. But they were born and raised in Baltimore under circumstances many can’t even fathom. They know what it’s like to come of age in a city with so much gun violence.
Mayor Brandon Scott has said that losing young people to violence is unacceptable. That he is “even more determined” to stop this “trend of youth violence,” and that parents need to be held accountable for “who their children are hanging out with.” He said he wants to speak directly to young people.
Baltimore teens say that’s not the whole story, that the city is quick to generalize them.
They just want city officials to make a better effort to reach out and really understand them.
The mayor’s office and Baltimore City Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Here is what some young people had to say:
You’re talking about youth violence ... Who better to speak on that than the people who are living through every day?— Camille Coffey
Name: Samiatu Yussuf
Grade and school: 11th, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
Interests: Track athlete, a leader in the school’s Black Student Union and part of UMB CURE Scholars Program
Inside the classrooms at Southwest Baltimore Charter School, Samiatu felt safe as a seventh grader. School shootings were a lingering concern in the back of her mind, but learning distracted her. The teachers brought in specialists that taught her to understand her emotions and practice mindfulness. She learned to focus on her breathing with her eyes closed.
“Trying to escape from the world, in a sense,” said Samiatu, who grew up in West Baltimore.
But it can be hard.
One hot day, Samiatu and her friends wanted to pick up some drinks at a nearby corner store — a three minute or so walk from her school in Pigtown. As they approached the store, they saw there had been a shooting.
“We weren’t in tears or anything,” she said. “We just had to walk away and just continue with our lives. I think it’s sad that we were that close to an incident where someone was shot in a corner store because we shouldn’t be numb to stuff like that.”
She wants the city to tackle the issue of gun violence more aggressively and stop firearms from ending up in the hands of people who aren’t responsible. Lawmakers should be held accountable, rather than kids, she said.
“Why should kids who are innocent and young have to advocate?” she asked.
Name: Niara “Nini” Mollett
Grade and school: 10th, Western High School
Interests: Board member of Youth As Resources and an avid dancer
It didn’t hit Nini that her family friend, her “cousin,” as she calls him, had died until she saw his photos on social media.
Izaiah Carter, who was 16, cool and “weird,” was fatally shot in March near Patterson High School.
Nini is used to the comments on social media when a teenager is shot or killed: Where are this kid’s parents? Why wasn’t this kid at school? It’s always belittling, Nini said.
“Our place [as teenagers] in the conversation is the problem for me,” she said, noting there is no place for them to be heard.
Nini’s mother always tells her that things in Baltimore didn’t used to be this way. Recreational centers were open throughout the city offering teens a place to hang out after school, to play basketball — to just be.
“We don’t have those resources, and even the resources we do have, a lot of youth don’t know about it,” Nini said. She ties gun violence among youth to mental health issues. Someone, especially a young person, who is capable of shooting someone with no remorse, is missing something, she said.
There should be more programs that teach teens critical skills, such as public speaking and financial literacy, regardless of grades or location, she said.
“We’re lacking the mentorship, we’re lacking the opportunities to gain motivation,” she stressed.
Name: Salem Bowens
Grade and school: 12th, Western High School
Interests: “Baltimore born and bred poet” and marching band drummer
Salem isn’t used to sleeping peacefully through the night.
Growing up, he was often awakened by gunshots near Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore. He still hears the occasional police siren where he lives now near Sinclair Lane, but overall, his neighborhood feels quiet.
If he closes his eyes, though, he can still see the flashing lights. He can hear the screaming from when his family found his cousin, a 15-year-old boy at the time, had been fatally shot. He wishes he couldn’t. He wishes he had been more sheltered. Salem was just a toddler then.
The family had lost another cousin, who had a baby on the way, to gun violence in the 1990s. It saddens Salem that gun violence affects people in Baltimore before they are even born.
Growing up, Salem remembers his mother being vigilant: “You can’t go outside at this time,” she told him, or “You aren’t allowed to go to this friend’s house because of where they live.”
His mother also didn’t let Salem go to the store with his big brother. His brother has rehabilitated his life, Salem said, but he was targeted a lot as a young man involved in drug dealing and gang violence. Raised in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his brother felt that was the only way to make a living. There wasn’t leadership in the city at the time that cared for young Black boys and men, Salem said.
Name: Camille Coffey
Grade and school: 11th, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
Interests: Communications lead for Baltimore Student Union
When the news that 16-year-old Deanta Dorsey had died after being shot at the Edmondson Village Shopping Center in January, the text messages from peers that flooded Camille’s phone mostly expressed exhaustion.
“It happens so often,” Camille said. “And every time, we hear the same thing from elected officials and leaders in our community.”
She knows it by heart. It starts with victim blaming: The student shouldn’t have been out of school.
But she sees so many more relevant, pressing questions officials should ask. For instance, what was happening in the school that the student wasn’t there?
Or, she offers another example: Adults will say kids don’t know how to resolve their issues, but fall short of funding mental health education or community centers and other safe places for students.
“There’s a lot of surface level pointing at different problems, but never like a deeper dive into the systemic issues that we can start working to solve instead,” she said.
Coffey worried about stricter enforcement of a city curfew that bans students under the age of 16 from businesses during school hours, thinking it would mean more police patrolling in Black and brown neighborhoods.
The Baltimore Student Union, a student advocacy group representing seven Baltimore schools, knows exactly what it wants — more guidance counselors, a curriculum that accounts for diversity and high-quality after-school programs where students can pursue their passions. What the group doesn’t want is more police officers and Evolv, a weapon detection system, in schools.
Her first really distinct memory of feeling unsafe in school was in her elementary school near Mondawmin Mall, when there was a shooting in the neighborhood and the school had to go on lockdown.
“Ultimately, this is our issue, right? You’re talking about youth violence,” she said. “Who better to speak on that than the people who are living through it every day?”
Name: Sean Rice
Grade and school: 11th, Career Academy
Interests: Member of Youth As Resources
Not too long ago, there was a shooting near Sean’s home in Mount Clare. Those who knew his street called him to make sure he was OK.
He was. But his family? For a terrifying moment, Sean didn’t know. He was at a nearby store.
“Please, don’t let anybody in my house be hurt,” he thought to himself. A bullet carries a lot of momentum. It could have easily shot through the wall of the rowhouse and hit his aunt, who was sitting in the living room.
Thankfully, none of the bullets got anywhere near his home. But there was another shooting in the neighborhood after that in an alleyway. And there are the shootings citywide that have wounded and killed teens one after the other in a disturbing trend.
“It impacts the way I think about things,” he said.
But his involvement with Youth As Resources also changes his outlook. If he hadn’t joined the organization, he wouldn’t have had the leadership skills and mindset he has now. For him, the rise in youth-involved shootings signals a lack of resources that, while he has been able to access, many teens don’t.
Give teens something to feel excited about, that will show them what they are capable of, or a job that will allow them to be financially stable, he said.
“Students will get involved so long as it’s something that they like, something that can hook their attention,” Sean said.
If you live in Baltimore City, you have collective trauma.— Ashley Esposito
Student reactions no surprise
None of the students’ reactions feel particularly new to some community organizers and advocates for youth.
Teens have told Gab Sussman, who taught early childhood, elementary and middle school students for 10 years, that their bags get searched at stores; that people stare when they try to hang out outside a bodega; and people call the cops on them at parks. Baltimore teens don’t have many safe places to hang out after school, said Sussman, who co-founded Bmore Transform, a learning collective that centers youth.
A recent city push to open more recreational centers could ensure that youth feels included in the community and could provide a physical space for children who might lack a safe, stable environment and resources such as Wi-Fi, Sussman said. Several hospitals, including the University of Maryland Medical System, Johns Hopkins Medicine, LifeBridge Health, MedStar Health and Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital, will also soon become sites of violence intervention partnerships.
But teens have also told Sussman: The city won’t solve the issue of gun violence without investing in adequate mental health services, using restorative practices and teaching students emotional learning in a way that is authentic and sustainable.
The city needs to make an intentional effort to reach communities, said Ashley Esposito, a commissioner for the Baltimore City Board of Education. While some students feel empowered to reach out to the school board, she worries those who are the most affected don’t.
“If you live in Baltimore City, you have collective trauma,” said Esposito, who describes herself as a former at-risk student. “So our resources and the wraparound services that we need to provide are absolutely necessary for kids to not have a barrier to their participation in the classroom.”
Joseph Richardson — who researches gun violence and trauma among Black boys and men and was a facilitator of a panel on the topic at a recent workshop — said students feel ignored.
Teens at the workshop were overwhelmingly against the city’s plan to enforce a night curfew, arguing that many young people work nights to support their families. They also didn’t see how the curfew was productive when violence has also happened during the day. The teens had called for community-based violence intervention response and reduced police involvement, methods Richardson said have been proven to work.
“We should stay away from making assumptions about the solutions until we actually have a critical mass of kids in the room that can speak to what they think would work,” said Richardson, the Joel and Kim Feller professor of African American Studies and anthropology at the University of Maryland.
This story has been updated to reflect that a curfew banning students under the age of 16 from businesses during school hours was preexisting in city code.