The boys had come to say goodbye to their 14-year-old teammate.
The Nov. 3 vigil in Southeast D.C. was supposed to give the boys a chance to share what they loved about Antoine. Their coaches and parents hoped it would help them process his loss. But the night was almost over, and the boys had hardly shared a word.
“Young men,” said Bob Brown, a coach. “Each and every one of y’all should get up here and pour your heart out.”
It was silent for a minute. Then, in a single file line, they walked to the front of the crowd.
Their friend was the 14th juvenile killed by gunfire this year in D.C., and by the end of the month, 16 would be dead. Over that same period, 82 youths were shot and injured, and more than 200 juveniles were arrested for themselves committing violent crimes. Each of those numbers has increased compared to the same time last year, though juveniles still account for less than a quarter of arrests in all violent incidents citywide.
D.C. is not the only city struggling with youths being shot. Nationwide, more than 5,800 people under 18 years old have been wounded or killed by gunfire this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. That number has increased each year since the pandemic started, with about 3,820 juveniles shot fatally or non-fatally in 2019.
The growing number of juveniles shot, killed and arrested for violence has taken a toll on communities across the District. Ninth graders are reckoning with their own mortality. Families are fearful that grief at such an early age could drive their own children toward danger. City leaders, despite repeated efforts over months, appear unable to quiet the gunfire.
“There has to be a certain level of urgency behind this because it does involve our young people,” said D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III.
As of Dec. 1, police data showed fatal shootings of youth have more than doubled compared to the same time last year. Nonfatal shootings of juveniles were also up by more than 80 percent. The 2022 number, 82, was roughly even with shootings of youth in 2020, and far higher than the number of juveniles shot and wounded in 2019.
There have been fewer juveniles arrested for violent incidents so far this year compared to the same time the year before the pandemic, but the number has increased by 15 percent compared to the same time last year, according to police data through Nov. 7. Almost half of those juveniles were first-time offenders, which the city’s police chief called “staggering” and a departure from the past, when juveniles tended to commit petty crimes before escalating to violent ones.
Local officials have acknowledged the increase in juvenile shootings as a serious problem, but disagree on how to address it. Contee said in an interview that his officers are doing their part and pointed to the courts for being too soft on offenders. The District’s top juvenile prosecutor defended his role in the system, saying the problem is not accountability, but inadequate investment in social services.
“It is important for people to know that accountability does not necessarily have to mean punitive punishment,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine. “There are other, evidence-based ways of providing accountability and putting young people on a path toward success.”
He stressed that violence among youth stems from a “confluence of issues” including the effects of the pandemic, the growing number of firearms and “a great deal of poverty and hopelessness.”
Officials and community leaders across the city have also urged parents and guardians to take more ownership over their children’s’ safety.
At Antoine’s funeral, on a November night in Southeast Washington, the adults on the field saw an opportunity to do just that. They wanted to teach their kids to cope.
“If you miss him, speak about him,” their coach said. “This is his memory.”
One boy took the microphone and stared at his feet.
“I don’t know what to say right now,” he said. “I’m crying on the inside.”
“Cry on the outside,” a woman screamed back.
“We was just feeling our English class,” another boy said.
“Say that louder!” a woman yelled back.
“We was FEELIN’ our English class,” the boy shouted.
“And you brought your grade up to what?” the woman said.
“B,” he replied, now smiling.
The crowd cheered.
In the last six weeks alone, more than a dozen children and teens in D.C. have been wounded in shootings. A 4-year-old was grazed by a bullet not meant for him. A 15-year-old was shot and wounded in Shaw on the same day that another 15-year-old, Makai Green, was killed.
“It’s hard because people who I know personally are dying,” said Malachi Barr, a 15-year-old who played with Antoine on the Watkins Hornets Youth Association team called the “Clockboyz.” The players from the team have since graduated from that youth football program.
Malachi said he considered himself a “big brother” to PJ Evans, an 8-year-old fatally shot by a stray bullet last summer while eating tacos at his cousin’s house in Prince George’s County. He knew from youth football Davon McNeal, an 11-year-old killed two years ago near a Fourth of July anti-violence cookout. And he loved playing Madden with Antoine after school. “It makes me angry,” he said. “Why does this keep happening? Why can’t this gun violence just stop?”
Experts have attributed the increase in juveniles shot and shooting, in part, to two factors: pandemic-related trauma, and the proliferation of guns in the city and beyond.
An analysis of test scores from across the country found that the average student lost more than half a school year of learning in math and nearly a quarter of a school year in reading throughout the pandemic. More than 10 million children lost a parent or caregiver to the coronavirus. Even more kids saw their family members’ jobs and mental health wither away. Each of these disruptions, experts have found, weighed more heavily on children who are Black or impoverished.
Eduardo Ferrer, a Georgetown University law professor and policy director of the school’s Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative, said that many teenagers recently charged with nonviolent and violent offenses have experienced some sort of trauma exacerbated by the pandemic. He urged lawmakers to focus on how to address their needs.
“We should not be asking whether to incarcerate more or fewer kids,” he said. “The question we should be asking is, ‘what does a particular young person need in order to be successful?’”
As the effects of the two-year lockdown continue to reverberate, the number of firearms in the District has also surged, according to police. This year, D.C. police said they have recovered more than 2,700 firearms — the highest number in over a decade. According to data provided by D.C. police, there have been more firearm-related arrests of youth so far this year than at the same point over the last three years.
Adults across the District, from Contee to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to neighborhood moms, have begged their children to put down the guns.
“These kids don’t have no hearts. They are heartless,” said Brown, a Clockboyz coach, at Antoine’s vigil. “I’m not talking about on the field. I’m talking about on the streets.”
“No, they’re hurt,” a team mother said from the back of the crowd. “These kids are hurting.”
Malachi said he has noticed some people he knows flashing firearms on Instagram and wishes they would stop. He said he wants adults to know that those friends need help, not to be yelled at or arrested or locked up.
“The people that got guns, just love on them,” he said. “The people who are hurting people are hurt already. If they get love, that shows them that hurting people is sad.”
The juvenile justice system in D.C. is built on a similar philosophy. The maximum sentence available for a person charged as a juvenile is commitment to the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services until 21 years of age, and even that punishment is tailored to individual needs.
Some officials say youth are not being properly deterred from committing crimes, because their punishment does not always appear serious enough to change behavior.
“If you’re 14 years old and you get an attorney assigned to you and you’re walking into court with your attorney,” said D.C. Director of Gun Violence Prevention Linda Harllee Harper. “How that feels is kind of movie-like. And then you get off and everybody’s high-fiving, and everyone may know that you actually did it but you got off. The messaging around that is really tough.”
Data provided by D.C. Courts provides some insight into how the city’s criminal justice system has treated its youth this year, a process that is opaque because of strict juvenile confidentiality laws. Prosecutors moved forward in 83 percent of cases filed between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1; the rest were dropped for lack of evidence or other reasons.
Of the roughly 300 cases that made their way through the courts, more than half were dismissed — which could mean youth completed diversion programs or deferred sentencing agreements by the attorney general’s office. In the remaining cases, youths were committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services about half of the time, and given probation the other half.
As of Dec. 2, there were 115 juveniles committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services, a drop of at least 25 percent compared to the number of youths committed in 2019, 2020 and 2021, according to the agency.
Racine, whose office prosecutes the vast majority of crime committed by juveniles, said he has noticed a shift in the types of crime committed by juveniles over the course of the pandemic. Incidents presented to his office where one or more juveniles were arrested for carjacking and homicides are both up compared to 2019, while robberies and assaults with dangerous weapons have fallen over the same period.
“I am quite confident in the work of our office,” Racine said. “We are actually about accountability, not the appearance or chatter of accountability.”
Police have not made an arrest in the killing of Antoine, but they said investigators believed he had been targeted. He had been shot and wounded a week prior, and police have charged a 15-year-old in that incident.
The teenagers at the vigil for Antoine held onto each other’s shoulders as they listened to their teammates speak. Their eyes were swollen. Some pursed their lips, trying not to cry.
Then, a few minutes later, music started to blare from a nearby speaker. It was the song, called “Tic Tock,” that they had written together years ago. They played it at practices, at games and recorded a viral music video on YouTube — which showed team members, including Antoine, completing passes and scoring touchdowns.
The boys packed together at the front of the field and started to bob up and down together. Soon they were smiling. Laughing. They clutched a picture of Antoine, who they called “Doodie,” so he could dance with them.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.