Chilly water didn’t discourage many on a recent Sunday evening at the Druid Hill Park swimming pool. Kids launched off the diving board, taking swan dives into the deep end. A group raced one another back and forth along the grass nearby.
As temperatures cooled near closing time, families climbed into minivans while straggling teenagers searched for what to do next.
It was the last Sunday of the school year for Baltimore students, and reopened city pools are one of the first signs of summer.
But summer evenings can carry a different weight.
The season has always brought a sense of nervousness for city leaders, and this year Baltimore is grappling with an alarming surge in teen gun violence. While overall homicides and nonfatal shootings have recessed in the first six months of this year, 2023 has so far been the most dangerous year for teenagers since at least 2015. Through June 10, 61 high-school-aged residents have been shot, accounting for 17% of all shootings in the city, according to tracking by The Baltimore Banner. That’s up from 12.5% at the same point in 2022 and 5.4% the year before.
In response to the surge, Mayor Brandon Scott has revived enforcement of Baltimore’s longstanding youth curfew, despite little evidence to support its effectiveness. But the first-term Democrat has also doubled down on the kinds of programming that keep kids involved, plugged in with adults — and perhaps most important — busy for the summer months.
That includes enticing kids to public pools.
At a June news conference at the Druid Hill Park pool, Scott underscored his pitch to get kids involved in city programs as “the most important” part of his summer strategy. He pushed back on a question focused on the controversial curfew policy, which he has revived with an emphasis on social services over police, arguing for the tool as one component in broader city effort to bring kids into the fold. This strategy means setting kids up with services as well as opportunities, from city-sponsored concerts to midnight basketball to seasonal jobs to weekly parties at public pools.
“We’ve seen it work,” Scott said, in one forceful response to a curfew question. “We get these young people to come inside, to not be out there doing things that we know are putting them at risk.”
He added: “It’s not that complicated. It’s a very simple thing.”
A high-stakes summer
Summers in Baltimore have long been marked by violence.
While the city is on track to reverse eight straight years of more than 300 homicides, overall shootings usually peak in June. The hotter months pose dangers for teens in particular, whose typically busy school schedules give way to long, free-form days. From 2015 to 2021, the number of high-school-aged residents shot has tended to climb steadily between February and August, a Baltimore Banner analysis found. On average over that span, fewer than three 13- to 18-year-olds have been shot in the month of February, a number that rose to nearly nine in May, to almost 10 in July and peaked close to 11 in August.
City leaders are banking on thousands of slots in summer programs and events to help to stem that pattern this year. Jabril Jones, a rising junior at Digital Harbor High School, hopes to be one of the many teens in a city-supported job this summer.
A participant in the workshops at the nonprofit Digital Harbor Foundation in Federal Hill, Jones has been accepted for a spot in the city’s 50-year-old summer jobs program Youthworks for this summer, though he and his mother hope the program can shift his assignment from a gig in Park Heights to a science program closer to his school. If that doesn’t work out, he’s applied for a grocery store job, too.
The soft-spoken 16-year-old isn’t the kind of kid who makes his parents worry. He cares about his school work and prefers reading to going out. But even for Jones, the prevalence of gun violence can feel almost unremarkable. Just days earlier, he’d learned that another Digital Harbor student had been shot and killed. K’mauri Ebanks, the 19-year-old quarterback for the Digital Harbor football team, died after being shot 35 times, his mother told The Banner.
“It’s not new to me,” Jones said of the violence afflicting his peers. “It’s quite normal, here, in Baltimore.”
In response to such outbreaks of violence over the last academic year, Scott chose his health department director, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, in April to take on a new role as deputy mayor, with a special focus on youth violence.
In an interview, Dzirasa pointed to the wide range of activities and programs the city is providing this summer to protect kids. The collective attention of agencies and nonprofits on youth safety has made this summer look less daunting, she said. The mayor has always had a particular focus on the needs and wellbeing of Baltimore’s young people, she said. “Right now, this is the issue that happens to be bubbling up to the surface.”
City programming this summer includes events – concerts in the Inner Harbor, midnight basketball and pool parties – as well as thousands of structured activities, from camps to summer school to Youthworks jobs. This year, the longstanding program boasted offers for nearly 8,000 kids, an increase over recent years. The boost in Youthworks capacity was made possible partly by the city’s federal pandemic aid, which has also allowed the program to bolster its full-time staff.
Councilman Zeke Cohen, meanwhile, has led a push in recent months to set up Friday field trips for students in summer school, which only covers four days of the week.
Cohen, who is campaigning for City Council president, said he and other officials have been compelled by the recent surge in youth violence to do more this year. These preventative steps to teen violence are relatively simple, he noted, but they require investments of time and resources to set up. The East Baltimore councilman also pointed to the importance of reaching the kinds of kids who are chronically absent and building programming that can enroll the full youth population.
For Jones, the Digital Harbor student, gun violence trends have also left him with the feeling that this year is different. It’s not something he and his classmates talk much about.
“But we all know,” he said. “I hope they know.”
Even with such a collective focus from elected leaders on getting kids involved this summer, opportunities in Baltimore fall far short of reaching many of the city’s young people.
Tracking by the youth-focused nonprofit Baltimore’s Promise has found that programs provided by Baltimore City and other major outreach organizations will provide slots for about 38,000 kids this summer, well below the 83,000 enrollment in the public school system. The gap is even larger if you include the tens of thousands more residents between high school age and 24 years old — a demographic Baltimore’s Promise CEO Julia Baez noted often deals with many of the same pressures as teens.
The limits of existing programming are even starker if examined by times of day, year or by specific age group. For one, Baez said, Baltimore “divests in kids as they get older,” providing fewer and fewer options as kids progress into their teenage years. Many of the city’s summer programs, too, are limited in their reach. Jobs through Youthworks, for instance, last for a constrained five weeks of the summer, while summer school is six weeks long.
After 4:00 p.m. in August, the opportunities available for kids in Baltimore drop off precipitously, Baez said.
Summer months tend to be better, thanks partly to a general recognition for the importance of filling gaps when school is out, Baez said. She feels optimistic with the growing alignment of support around programs for kids, that the city and state will bring more resources to the table to expand offerings. But even then, Baltimore struggles to reach the most at-risk kids, who may not be inclined to show up to school or for extracurricular programs to begin with.
While a focus on kids has become a hallmark of Scott’s leadership, some residents said they weren’t aware of steps the city is taking to reach children this summer, beyond enforcing the curfew.
Teen gun violence is always in front of mind for Tiffany, a mother at Druid Hill Park who declined to share her last name. Watching from a picnic table as her son played pick-up basketball, Tiffany said she worries about her 11-year-old, who is preparing to begin middle school and will soon be exposed to new things.
Like the mayor, Tiffany grew up in Park Heights, but she said the neighborhood traditions she grew up around there, like block parties, have fallen off for her son’s generation.
”It wasn’t always youth gettin’ killed,” she said. “Because they had something to do.”
That’s all they need, she added. “More structure.”
As families and teens meandered past the ice cream truck outside the Druid Hill swimming pool, a tall 15-year-old leaving the area with friends said he knows the dangers that come with being out late at night. Unlike many other Baltimore teenagers, he thinks the mayor’s curfew policy is a good idea.
Strolling up the hill, he and his friends joined the group still hooping on the basketball courts. It was just past 8:00 p.m., and soon it would be dark out.
Reporter Pamela Wood and data reporter Ryan Little contributed to this story.