Mary Kay Connerton helps kids breathe.
Not just taking in air while you’re walking up the crowded stairway to a second-floor classroom at Annapolis High School, but the kind of breathing you might forget to do when you learn someone close to you has been shot to death.
“This is my ninth year at Annapolis High, and I have lost several students to gun violence,” said Connerton, the school wellness coordinator and a finalist for Maryland Teacher of the Year. “It is something that needs to change. Our children, who are our most prized possessions — our future — they deserve so much better. They deserve to feel safe and secure.”
Connerton started working with students exposed to gun violence as an outgrowth of a program she created that included yoga and mindfulness — one she said had a profound impact on staff and students who participated.
“Over the past five to seven years, I’ve seen more and more kids coming to school displaying behaviors that would make you say they’ve been exposed to trauma,” she said.
Last week there were more shootings in Annapolis.
A 40-year-old man was shot three times on a street corner in Eastport. Cars and trucks in the area were pocked by bullets. Another man in Robinwood heard gunfire and realized he’d been shot in the leg.
The violence followed the death of Tre’on Hunt on Sept. 8, and 16-year-old Robert Clark in July. There have been nine homicides in Annapolis this year, and many more shootings and reports of gunfire in the night. Some of the victims are tied to Annapolis High.
“This is a major systemic issue all across the country,” Connerton said. “It’s not just Annapolis. As educators, we are left with the healing or the support or whatever needs to happen. What needs to happen is a change in gun regulations or laws.”
You can see how that’s going.
The city of Annapolis remains a relatively safe place. There have been two mass shootings, including one in June that left a father and son and another young man dead and three wounded, and those make national news.
But most gun violence is confined to the same few neighborhoods, where many of the city’s poorest residents live. It’s easy to compartmentalize it if you don’t live there — to enjoy a beer on a nice September night a few minutes and a world away from the latest tragedy.
We hear a lot of explanations about why gun violence is so cyclical, rising in years like this one and then falling in the next. There was only one homicide in the city last year.
There’s a vacuum among neighborhood gangs after police snapped up a few gang elders on existing warrants. Young men get killing-mad over things like insult-laced music videos. Rivalries between neighborhoods.
Ghost guns are in Annapolis in unknown numbers, and if you’ve ever acquired a gun, you know the first thing you do is try it out. Teenagers carry guns to protect themselves from other teenagers with guns. New state laws prevent the arrest of kids under 13 except for violent crimes and gun possession.
But there’s a side to all this that is easy to overlook. Some people are trying to help those hurt by it all.
If you’re exposed to gun violence growing up — if a 12-year-old is on a neighborhood playground when bullets fly, or if your friend is shot to death on a July night — you’re going to suffer the consequences. And that is happening in Annapolis.
“Imagine being 8 years old and stepping off the bus in your neighborhood to police cars and medical examiner vans,” Mayor Gavin Buckley said at the start of a recent council meeting. “This is trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.”
Trauma changes behavior. Kids exposed to it can shut down and refuse to engage, they can become sullen. They can become suddenly emotional, acting out a fight-or-flight reflex. If that sounds like behavior troubling public schools, you’re right.
“Absolutely. I think they are intertwined, right?” said Katera West, an intervention specialist who frequently works at Annapolis High. “They are connected.”
Anne Arundel County Public Schools is at the forefront of efforts to deal with this. It has developed some novel approaches to helping students suffering from this kind of trauma. There is Connerton’s wellness program, which invites students to step forward for help during the first weeks of school.
“We had about 15 to 20 students,” she said. “We all sat in a circle. We started, and I led a breathing exercise. We dimmed the lights. We tried to shift the energy a little bit.”
And there is Pathways to Peace, now in its second full year under the supervision of West and Kerry Mueller, a social worker at the high school.
In May 2022, they brought in 50 students from Annapolis and Old Mill high schools involved in gun violence and led them through workshops. They connected them with various services in hopes of getting to the causes of violence and how to avoid it.
“They had an opportunity to go in and have what we call our community circles,” West said. “To get to some of these root causes. We also had some community members as well as community organizations and resources available to them.”
The program has expanded to discussions about academics and jobs with the same group of kids. One of its students, Robert Clark, never made it to a second year.
Beyond school, the city of Annapolis is running programs such as a youth boxing club, a reentry program for people coming out of prison, and outreach by police. Since being appointed police chief in 2019, Ed Jackson has relied on his experience in Baltimore to recruit officers who want to work in a community, rather than just patrol it.
“The shootings are not a policing problem, they’re a social problem,” Buckley said.
This fall, Anne Arundel County will launch Cure the Violence, a program that seeks to address gun violence in one particular Annapolis neighborhood. The city already runs a grant-funded program in another neighborhood, No Harm. It seeks to head off disputes before they lead to violence.
And the people involved are working together.
“By inviting Coren Mackell, neighborhood engagement specialist, to participate with Pathways to Peace activities … we gave her the opportunity to build relationships with youth who might not otherwise come out for the community events she organizes,” Mueller, the school social worker, wrote in an email. “Coren even hired one of our students to be her summer intern.”
“In return,” Mueller continued, “Coren is the eyes and ears in the community when we hear about potential violence, or in the aftermath of events such as the death of Robert Clark.”
There are other connections among efforts to reach kids living with gun violence.
John Watts is the senior pastor of Kingdom Life Church Apostolic in Baltimore, but also a specialist at the Phoenix Academy, a self-contained school in Annapolis for younger kids with emotional or behavioral problems and older kids referred for disciplinary reasons.
Not every kid is a success story. Tre’on Hunt went to the Phoenix Academy.
“We’re seeing more and more kids, 4- and 5-year-olds, coming to school with some behavioral challenges that could be impacted by traumatic experience,” said Ryan Voegtlin, director of student services for the county schools.
Watts brings some of his students from Phoenix Academy into a mentoring program he started, combining 10 young men from Annapolis and 10 from Baltimore. All of them have come into contact with gun violence.
“They’re hurting,” he said, standing outside with one of the young men after a community meeting on education just days after Hunt was fatally shot in the Bywater community.
Standing near us in the growing darkness were Annapolis community activists Toni Strong Pratt and her husband, William Pratt. She’s run for office twice to challenge the status quo, losing both times narrowly.
They run My Sister’s Keeper and My Brother’s Keeper, eight-week programs that have helped dozens address the consequences of growing up in communities where violence is part of life.
And over and over, there is a constant refrain: a desire for change.
“When I talk to the youth in the community,” Pratt said, it’s “the very first thing that they talk about.”