Brittney Jeffries, 15, follows a tight routine as she moves through this city where juveniles are dying in homicides at an alarming rate and parents and officials seem at a loss for solutions. Every day, she goes straight to school and straight back home. In these dangerous times, her parents are afraid for her to be out and about much more than that.
"Sometimes I think we're a little strict on her, but because of the violence, we have to be," said Brittney's mother, Loyce Jeffries, 47, of Southeast Washington. "I know she's going to have to go out there on the streets. You can't stop them from being teenagers -- they're going to have to travel, and she has to go to school -- but I just pray that she doesn't run into something going wrong while she's out there."
Fears are growing as the District's juvenile death toll continues to rise. There have been 21 slayings this year involving people under age 18, compared with 12 for all of 2003. Coming within a 36-hour period, the latest cases -- a 16-year-old girl found shot to death Saturday night, a 13-year-old boy shot to death Monday morning, both in Southeast -- have heightened the anxiety and the calls for something to be done.
Worried parents, like Loyce Jeffries, are telling their teenagers to phone as soon as they arrive safely at school. Such students as 15-year-old Keith Gonzalez feel uneasy waiting at a bus stop in Anacostia on a busy afternoon. In small ways, some youths and their parents are making changes to their lives, drawing tighter parameters, closing in their world.
"I don't feel safe at all. Every five minutes I feel like I have to look around," said Keith, a sophomore at Ballou Senior High School, which has lost four students to violence this year. "I shouldn't have to feel like that."
Officials cite the usual factors for the surge in juvenile homicides, even as the District's overall homicide rate is dropping: too little parental involvement, a lack of after-school programs and other activities to occupy youths. Solutions are harder to come by.
"It's clear that the parents need to step up. They need to know where their children are," said Carlos Murrell, a family support worker at the Benning Terrace Community Resource Center. "But especially in the deprived areas . . . they are desensitized. I don't want to say people have given up, but they've come to a brick wall and they don't see any way over or under it."
The Rev. Donald L. Isaac, director of the East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership, said that as a short-term measure, the group has sent clergy response teams to counsel the two latest victims' families. But long-term, "the local faith community really has to catch fire," he said. "It's not a quick-fix problem."
Parents like Michelle Gonzalez, Keith's mother, are increasingly mindful of the dangers. Gonzalez, who lives in Southeast, said she rides herd on her four children, including three teenagers, tightening their curfews, keeping them busy with church activities and visiting their schools.
"It seems to me like a prison because he goes to Ballou," she said about Keith's high school, which has heavy security. "I check up on him. I call his counselor. Our children are reflections on us, but the parents are not always to blame -- you can't watch them every second. You don't know what your child is out there doing. You think you know, but you don't.
"I stay in prayer a lot for my children," she said.
Edna Rogers sends her granddaughter, Katrina Marshall, 15, to school each day with the same instructions. "I tell her to be careful, not to talk to anybody, and go straight to school and straight back," said Rogers, 54, a Southeast resident.
Like Brittney, Katrina attends the New School for Enterprise and Development, a public charter school in Northeast, riding Metrobus back and forth each day. Rogers said she made an extra effort to enroll Katrina there after one of her junior high school teachers pleaded with her not to send the girl to Anacostia Senior High School because of past violence there.
Katrina said she is not sure why so many teenagers in her community have died violently. "They're just driving around, hanging out, not being safe," she said. "It's stupid and it's sad."