Nadia Brooks has just a four-block walk to school but a critical choice of paths: dart across four lanes of traffic without a crosswalk, or walk past the Edmondson Village Shopping Center where five students were recently shot, one fatally.

“I don’t think that either way is safe,” the 18-year-old said. In her risk analysis, gunfire is more dangerous and unpredictable. So she runs across Edmondson Avenue.

Her friend Zion Mack, 17, takes two MTA buses and a train, standing on street corners where men sometimes leer at her. She texts her parents as she gets to each stop to tell them where she is on her 45-minute journey, or calls and talks to Brooks.

Nadia Brooks, a senior, discusses the aftermath of the Edmondson Village shooting and her feelings about safety at Edmondson-Westside High School. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Once at the front door of Edmondson-Westside High School in West Baltimore, they go through a metal detector and backpack search, a measure that some students feel is invasive and demeaning, before a blue paper band is slipped over their wrists to show they are weapon free.

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For some city high school students, the danger that lurks outside the perimeter of their schools requires constant calculation and vigilance. In the first month of 2023, eight students have been shot just past the edge of their high schools’ property. Two of the students died. The shootings are part of a troubling rise in teenagers shot near high schools since the pandemic started.

In the seven school years before this one, no more than two teenagers had been shot within a block of a school; this year, the number went up to 11.

But inside Edmondson, a feeling of comfort and security pervades the worn building. “I feel very safe in the school, especially because of the teachers and the staff,” said 16-year-old student Angelo Duke.

Duke’s eyes wander as he tries to explain why he likes a school that looks frozen in the 1960s. The linoleum tile floors are shiny but are patched in different colors. The ceiling tiles are stained and falling down. About every other window seems so clouded up that you can’t see through it. An accordion room divider is shredded. Some of the window shades are original to the building, which is more than 60 years old. Air conditioners hang out of plywood fitted into the windows. Along one wall a sign reads, “Don’t let Baltimore be your last stop.”

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Angelo Duke explains why he feels safe inside of Edmondson-Westside High School. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“I’m not saying that the school is the best five star … best ever,” he said. “But the staff tries to make it as good as they can. Like the principal, Mr. Perry, he will make sure that no matter what happens, we’re OK. Even if we’re good, he’ll check on us because you never know truly what somebody has gone through. " Duke said that when students are acting out, the staff will show they care by making sure they get back on track.

The students said they have had academic opportunities they didn’t expect. Brooks has gotten into two colleges already. Paola Pichinte Flores, a senior, transferred from a large Montgomery County high school but found herself much happier at Edmondson in what she describes as a close-knit, comfortable community that allowed her to open up and overcome her shyness. She had a summer internship with a brain researcher at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, an opportunity she wouldn’t have found in her old school. “Everyone knows each other ... I feel I can be myself here,” she said. But after the incident, she said, ”things became much more real. ... A family has lost a child. I didn’t really think that anything like that could happen.”

Paola Pichinte Flores, a senior at Edmondson-Westside High School, said of last month's shooting: "I didn’t really think that anything like that could happen.” (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Karl Perry, the principal, is focused on academic achievement, and he is proud of the fact that for the first time in more than a decade, six students passed Advanced Placement tests in spring 2022. But he knows safety must be his first priority. At his desk in Edmondson, an extra-large computer monitor streams the view of at least 20 cameras placed strategically through the building. Perry can keep his eyes on stairwells, doors, the cafeteria, the gym and the school parking lots. A staff member stays at the school entrance at all times during school hours, asking for a visitor’s identification as they enter. “Outside is dangerous. You have to keep the outside out,” he said.

Encroaching violence

But even in a city with more than 300 killings a year, shootings within a block of a high school during a school day weren’t common until recently. Thirteen shootings of teenagers have occurred within a block of a city high school between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on school days since 2015, according to a Baltimore Banner data analysis.

Many of those occurred in 2022, as violence involving teenagers reached new magnitude citywide, and the increase continued in the first weeks of 2023. The same week as the Edmondson shooting, two students were shot in a street behind Benjamin Franklin High School. The month ended with a shooting around the corner from Forest Park High School shortly after dismissal.

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Ninety-four percent of shootings of teenagers near high schools in the past seven years were in the “Black Butterfly,” a term coined by author Lawrence Brown to describe areas of the city suffering from underinvestment that fan out on a map like butterfly wings.

“When we leave out of the house in the morning we want to get home,” said Brandon Clayton, CEO of Young Successful Leaders, a nonprofit for youth headquartered in the Edmondson Village Shopping Center where one of the shootings occurred.

“Our focus is our kids should make it back home.” Parents, he said, are growing increasingly worried about safety.

While some city high schools are in high-crime areas, shootings on school property are rare; only three people have been shot at school since 2015. Since the pandemic, schools across Maryland have struggled to handle larger numbers of students with behavioral problems. And schools in the region have seen an increase in suspensions and violence inside, with Baltimore County’s suspensions rising more quickly than many other school systems.

The statistics show the city is not the only district where guns have been found in schools. Since the beginning of this school year, nine guns have been found in city schools, four in Baltimore County schools and three in Anne Arundel County schools. None were found in Howard County schools.

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Keeping children safe in school does not prevent exposure to violence in unsafe neighborhoods that can have long-lasting effects. Lorece Edwards, a Morgan State University professor of public health, said that exposure can cause trauma and changes in the brain that increase anxiety and sleeplessness, which can affect academic performance.

Some students spend a good portion of their day concerned about safety in their communities and how they will return home from school, she said.

A longitudinal study she conducted showed that about 15% of participants saw school as a positive distraction from violence, but between 20 and 35% said staying alive was a greater priority than going to school.

‘That will destroy a person’

In the minutes before the shooting near Edmondson, a school administrator and a school police officer were outside in the parking lot talking to a parent. When they heard gunfire coming from the Popeyes across the street, they ran toward it knowing that “their kids” were probably there, said Perry, who was home sick that day.

The administrator bent over 16-year-old Deanta Dorsey, giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR as another staff member stayed by his side to comfort him as the paramedics arrived. The school police officer called 911 and tried to help the four other students who had been shot while a teacher inside the Popeyes tried to keep others safe. Then a staff member drove behind the ambulance to the hospital to stay nearby until his family arrived.

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Every year Perry had gone to the merchants across the street and begged them not to serve his students during school hours. The shopping center had been plagued by larcenies and burglaries, and Perry warned students about the dangers, telling them, “The vendors only want your money. They don’t care about your education.” But it is difficult to contain teenage behavior.

Edmondson-Westside is a high school with two buildings, the main school and a Westside Skill Center across the street where students go in their junior and senior years to take career training — everything from accounting to nursing to culinary arts. Students said they are walking between the two buildings for classes multiple times a day.

Popeyes, the main building and the Westside Skill Center form a triangle, and the restaurant is a short walk from Westside, proving an inviting stop for a chicken sandwich.

Perry talked to his staff throughout the day of the shooting, trying to help them from his bed. He knew his staff and students who had been on the scene would suffer even more than those in the building. “That will destroy a person,” Perry said. The injured students will never come back to the school, he said. Once they have recovered, he said, they will transfer to other schools.

Karl Perry is the principal of Edmondson-Westside High School. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Even some students not closely connected to those students aren’t coming back, their parents too scared for them to show up even to take their exams because the shooter has not been arrested and they fear more retaliatory violence. “No one knows what really went down,” Brooks said. “Was everything resolved or will more stuff continue to happen?”

For Perry, a 10-year veteran principal, the incident was what he had always feared. He tearfully described the hours and days after the shooting when he considered not coming back. “No matter what, the principal can’t break,” he said. When he returned the following week, he looked into students’ faces and saw a change. A raft of help, in the form of counseling, had arrived from outside the school, but students asked him why all these people they didn’t know were in the building. They wanted to talk to the administrators and teachers they trusted.

The school convened in the auditorium, and staff told the students they were loved, Duke remembers. But the shootings have left a lasting feeling in the school, one that counselors are still working to address. Students said they don’t accept the world they live in as normal. “Nothing is normal,” Duke said. “Now, it’s like you have to live with the fact that somebody did pass away that went to the school that was merely going across the street to go get something to eat. And it’s very sad.”

Duke said students shouldn’t have to think about whether they will be safe walking between school buildings. “It happened when nobody knew it was gonna happen. And that’s very problematic. And it’s toxic. The way that all of it works is very toxic.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of guns found in Baltimore County schools this school year. Four guns have been found in county schools, not 16.

Learn more about our analysis and reproduce our findings by visiting our GitHub page.

Data reporter Ryan Little contributed to this report.

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