Last fall, following an unusually violent summer for teenagers, Mayor Brandon Scott announced an initiative aimed at intervening in school conflicts before they erupt into gunfire.

Five months later, teenage gun violence in Baltimore has surged, even as nonfatal shootings and homicides in the city have receded. Scott’s school violence intervention pilot has yet to get off the ground — and likely won’t be fully implemented until the fall.

Even so, the scope of youth violence — with its sudden surge — is outpacing the city’s capacity to respond. Scott’s violence intervention program is slated for just three schools — Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School, Carver Vocational Technical High School, and Digital Harbor High School — though the violence has extended far beyond those neighborhoods.

Since the start of the academic year last fall, two dozen high school-age teens have been shot in Baltimore within approximately two blocks of 16 different schools, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis. Since the winter break, the problem has gotten even worse: In the first three months of this year, 39 residents between 13 and 18 years old have been shot across the city, and 11 have died, making it the deadliest start to a year for Baltimore teens since at least 2015.

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And while Scott points to numerous short- and long-term strategies his administration is pursuing to counteract the violence, protect kids and invest in communities, immediate responses to youth violence cited by the administration remain in early stages. In some cases Scott’s proposals also face skepticism from key counterparts like the Baltimore Police Department and Baltimore City Schools.

“I feel like there is a collective sense of horror and despair,” said Sarah Warren, executive director of Whole Child Services and Support in Baltimore City Schools, of this year’s violence among students. “Clearly, we have a whole lot more work to do to figure this out.”

The problem is complex, part of a national wave of increased violence among young people that has been driven by poverty, pandemic adjustments, social media and easier access to guns. Across the country in the last three years, shootings on school premises have nearly tripled, according to the K-12 Shooting Database, a nonscientific tracker. The issue has reached such urgency on the national stage that, in late March, a coalition of urban school districts responded to a series of shootings in other cities with a call “for shared outrage and collective action.”

Making the problem in Baltimore even more challenging, the recent violence has been diffuse across the city. While close to half of the recent teen shootings have happened within a few blocks of schools, incidents inside school buildings or on school property have been rare in Baltimore.

In an interview, Scott said he first convened agencies, including the school system and his public safety office, in February to work on a coordinated response to rising youth shootings. The first-term Democrat has invested heavily in public health responses to violence — committing $50 million in federal pandemic aid to anti-violence work and tens of millions more to improve athletic fields and parks — and he pointed to a suite of programs the city is pursuing to get ahead of teen conflicts before they turn violent.

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Long-term approaches range from after-school programs to social services for low-income families. More immediately, the administration is pushing for better communication between schools and law enforcement and exploring a program aimed at protecting students during their sometimes dangerous commutes home from school. And after a long-simmering conflict turned deadly at Patterson High School in early March, city officials rushed to stage emergency interventions with students to prevent further violence.

At the scenes of shootings, Scott often notes the complex mix of factors putting guns into the hands of Baltimore teens, and laments what he sees as a breakdown in communities that is causing young people to resort to deadly violence. Small beefs that might have ended in a fist-fight when he was a kid are now getting settled with guns.

“In Baltimore and across this country right now, after the pandemic,” the mayor said after the shooting of a young girl in January, “people are dying over dumb shit.”

Surveilling schools?

Scott’s “biggest push,” he said, is to find a way for the city’s siloed agencies to share detailed information about brewing disputes in schools so that officials can get a jump on conflicts before they erupt into violence. The mayor praised the school system and police department for their collaboration so far, but is urging them to formalize an agreement quickly to facilitate immediate, systematized data sharing on the situations in schools.

But relaying information with such specificity about minors poses a host of legal challenges. It also faces skepticism from the two most critical agencies: the school system and the police department.

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“It begs the question: Is someone responsible for gathering the intelligence about every feud and every fight in school even if it’s already been mediated?” asked Police Commissioner Michael Harrison in an interview. “Well, we’re getting to the point where some think that answer should be ‘yes.’”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Mayor Brandon M. Scott host a press conference to provide an update in reference to the homicide investigation of 16-year-old Izaiah Carter on March 20, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

Harrison estimated that scouring social media to gather the level of intelligence needed would likely require one or more full-time employees assigned to tracking feuds for every school in Baltimore — a substantial investment for a department that is already short hundreds of officers.

The job becomes trickier when it involves monitoring behavior that isn’t yet criminal. Inside a school or inside a home, the city has to rely on parents, pastors, teachers, coaches and mentors to influence how kids approach conflict, the police commission said, expressing reservations that law enforcement should get involved in that realm.

“To suggest that the police department should be participating in the intervention before a crime has been committed,” said Harrison, “this is yet another task we are taking on in an increasingly shrinking department.”

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises, meanwhile, questioned suggestions that more communication is needed in the first place. City schools and the police department are already communicating within the constraints of federal law, which prohibits schools from disclosing student discipline and academic records.

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She also expressed confusion at Scott’s call for revamped data-sharing protocols, noting that the General Assembly approved legislation sponsored by the mayor last year that targeted this very issue. That legislation establishing a hub for aggregated data on Baltimore teens, however, might not satisfy Scott’s goals, which the mayor’s office said involves sharing case management information on individual students.

A lot of officials “are actually scared” by the depth of the challenge, Santelises said, reaching for narrow solutions to what she called “a scary, hairy, complex issue.” She said parents are coming to schools to fuel some of the fighting.

“I think we need to look at what are the challenges that families are facing if I’ve got more families coming to school, to like, frankly, encourage fights,” she said, adding that behavior is an indication of the strain families are under. “Our city needs to figure out how to build strong families and support strong families.”

Conflicts are starting in the community and working their way into schools, the schools head argued, and the city should be investing in solutions that go beyond “a fight in a cafeteria” to get to the root of the problem in the households of kids engaged in violence.

“I wish we could finally get to a point where we would roll up sleeves and go student by student and family by family,” she said. “Because that’s what we’re seeing.”

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An intervention at Patterson

A week after 16-year-old Izaiah Carter was fatally shot on a playground near Patterson High School in East Baltimore, social workers and violence interventionists working for the city rushed to set up meetings with students involved in a long-standing beef thought to have precipitated the shooting.

The intervention – similar to one staged earlier this year by city officials after five students were shot and one was killed in a shopping center across from Edmondson-Westside High School – was a kind of test run for the work the city soon hopes to do on a full-time basis.

Scenes from the aftermath of a shooting at a playground adjacent to Patterson High School on March 6, 2023.
Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison speaks at the scenes from the aftermath of a shooting at a playground adjacent to Patterson High School on March 6, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Once up and running, the Scott administration’s teen violence interruptor program will embed three violence intervention specialists at MERVO, Carver and Digital Harbor high schools to work with students and families as mentors and conflict mediators.

As of spring break week in Baltimore City, however, that program hasn’t started, leaving the families of victims, like Carter’s mother, Michelle Hines, feeling that the city is only mobilizing to quell conflicts after the damage is done.

“My son’s death was completely preventable,” said Hines. “Baltimore City schools have become so reactive to tragedy and death among young people. I don’t understand why we aren’t treating these shootings with more preemptive measures.”

Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety spokeswoman Sydney Burns said the city expects to have a version of the violence intervention pilot implemented by the end of the school year, but all nine positions won’t be filled until the fall semester.

Separately, the school system is exploring several response measures of its own. Santelises said she is considering raising salaries to address a severe shortage of school police officers and is working with principals to look at more stringent discipline policies – a response to complaints that young people aren’t being held responsible for their actions.

The school system is also monitoring for upticks of bullying and violence and has implemented a series of post-pandemic policies to address student mental health, including building a period into every student’s day to talk about how they are doing, what’s happening in the community and to teach coping strategies. Warren added that the school system has also allocated funding to hire more social workers – every school currently has one – though she said hiring in the national worker shortage has been a challenge.

Among the groups involved in the emergency intervention at Patterson was the violence intervention nonprofit Youth Advocate Programs. For the organization’s program director, Joel Miller, the intervention marked an encouraging sign of the city’s commitment to investing in the root cause for kids, the first time he had seen so many different groups – from the mayor’s office to schools to law enforcement – at the same table standing ready to help.

Some of the students thought to be at highest risk of future violence didn’t show up for the first intervention at Patterson. But Miller said even more crucial than the initial meeting will be sustained follow-up. His organization plans to provide help and services to students involved in the conflict at Patterson and their families.

As the city scales its commitment to these community-based approaches to violent crime, Miller said people in other parts of town are hearing about them and wondering why they aren’t seeing the same work in their neighborhoods and schools.

“The truth is, it just hasn’t gotten to their part of the city yet,” he said.

Data reporter Ryan Little and reporter Penelope Blackwell contributed to this story.

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

liz.bowie@thebaltimorebanner.com

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