By the end of the 2018 calendar year, D.C. had 160 homicides, including that of Gerald Watson, a 15-year-old Ballou Senior High School student chased and gunned down by assailants just as young as him a couple weeks before the Christmas holiday.
Gerald’s death, and greater concerns about how to organize the Ward 8 community in preventing youth violence, compelled more than 50 people of various ages, perspectives, and professional backgrounds to attend a Safe Passage and student safety roundtable at a youth center earlier this week.
In devising an action plan to strengthen existing programs that help ensure student safety before, during and after the school day, participants couldn’t help but weigh in on what they believed to be the root causes of violent crime in Ward 8.
“There’s apathy around the quality of life in neighborhoods where parents feel excluded,” said Juanita White, director of family and community engagement at AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Southwest.
On Tuesday evening, White joined the community discussion at the FBR Branch of the Boys & Girls Club, headquartered at THEARC on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast, reflecting on her dealings with struggling families and describing the conditions that cause parents to fall short in helping their child succeed academically.
For other participants, areas of concern included rules preventing returning citizens from collaborating with local educational institutions in curbing youth violence, high unemployment, lack of mental health supports, a school lottery system that wore down neighborhood cohesion, and a lack of coordination between various parties involved in the Safe Passage program.
“This goes back to something internal about how we feel in dealing with being Black in America and the inequities that plague our communities,” White said. “Our safety doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. Those type of things make me feel that this work should be grassroots where we identify our powers.”
In 2017, after working group meetings about the matter, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education designated Anacostia and Congress Heights Metro stations, and the Good Hope Road corridor in Southeast as areas of priority for safe-passage programs.
These efforts strategically place adults along student commute routes where incidents of violence have broken out in the past. While safe-passage programs look different across the city, they often involve volunteers who maintain a physical presence on the streets before and after school hours.
The January 8 roundtable, facilitated by the Office of the Student Advocate, would set the stage for future meetings and ultimately a plan of action to ensure Ward 8’s Safe Passage program works in perpetuity, not just in the aftermath of tragedy.
“You thought it was important to talk about what more we can do,” Ward 8 State Board of Education representative Markus Batchelor said in his brief remarks to visitors, including Ward 8 Councilman Trayon White (D), the Metropolitan Police Department, administrators from Hendley Elementary School and students from Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School.
Last year, when juvenile homicides across the city reached numbers double that of previous years, Batchelor counted among the voices calling for a greater focus on existing programs geared toward student safety.
“Sometimes it seems like we can’t get a handle of the violence,” Batchelor said. “By the evidence of the gathering of this broad coalition, this problem seems more manageable for us to tackle as a community. This is the very beginning of a larger conversation.”
White said that such dialogue must focus on what the District government prioritizes in its spending. As city officials start to develop a new budget, White encouraged residents to place pressure that will change the tide of shuttered recreation centers, defunded comprehensive outreach efforts, and youth violence prevention programs that haven’t been implemented.
Jarrod Joshua, a 14-year-old participant in Tuesday’s roundtable discussion and Friendship Collegiate Public Charter School student who frequents the FBR Branch of the Boys & Girls Club, said he can attest to the benefits of recreation programs.
“What we’re doing is for the next generation to make sure that children and adults can travel safely,” Jarrod said. “I have a mother and three older siblings who make me feel safe. Those who don’t have that support system can go to the Boys & Girls Club and other places to help get their mind off the negativity. When people come to our club, they see what we do and feel connected.”