The strip of worn storefronts along what Congress Heights calls its Main Street attracts people buying groceries, paying their gas bills and getting haircuts. It also lures students from nearby Ballou High School as a place to hang out as they slowly make their way to morning classes.
A few minutes after 9 a.m. Tuesday, the bustling scene turned frantic when at least one gunman opened fire on a group near a bus stop, wounding three people, two of them 17-year-old students believed to attend Ballou, and sending bystanders and shoppers on routine errands scattering along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast Washington.
A 20-year-old former student was hit in the abdomen and was the most seriously injured, police said. He collapsed in front of a Washington Gas office. A 17-year-old struck in the leg ran into a cellphone shop. Another 17-year-old, grazed in the foot, ran four blocks to Ballou and took refuge inside.
D.C. police said Tuesday evening that they had made no arrests and were trying to determine a motive for the shooting. In the first hours of the investigation, police said the victims may have been shot as they stepped off a bus in the 3100 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. But police later said a bus may not have been there or one may have been passing by at the time. Police at the scene said they had trouble determining from which side of the street the gunfire came.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the shooting “certainly appears” to have been targeted.
Ballou, with nearly 700 students, was put on lockdown as police scoured the two-block crime scene. Nearby Imagine Southeast Public Charter was also locked down, and two elementary schools and one middle school were put on alert status, meaning their doors were locked and staff closely monitored the students.
Mary Cuthbert, chairwoman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area, 8C, said she heard the shots as she walked to work along Fifth Street and Martin Luther King, about a half block from the bus stop. “I heard four shots,” Cuthbert said. “I watched people run up Esther Place, down MLK, up Fourth. One young man collapsed in front of the gas place. Another ran into the communications store. The other ran toward the school.”
Cuthbert pointed to the 3100 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, where she said clusters of young people clog the stairs of a carryout and other shops and linger long into the morning, often long past the 8:45 a.m. opening bell at Ballou. She said that she, police officers and the school’s principal routinely come out to clear the street and get truants back into class.
“It’s time for parents to step up and take back their children,” Cuthbert said, adding that she will call for a community meeting to discuss safety, students and their morning hangout spot.
Officials for Ballou and the school system declined to comment Tuesday. Officer Araz Alali, a police spokesman, said dogs and a helicopter were used to search for at least one and possibly two gunmen.
The school is in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods. Its aging, low-slung building will be replaced next year by a new $120 million facility under construction next door, but that is unlikely to change the challenges that Ballou faces.
Truancy is a rampant problem; nearly nine in 10 Ballou students missed a month or more of classes last school year for unexcused absences, according to school system data.
Violence also is a long-
standing problem in the neighborhoods around Ballou, and, according to school system surveys, students feel less safe at Ballou than they do at the average D.C. school. In February, 17-year-old Jonathon Adams — who was a student at Ballou, according to his family — was fatally stabbed in a building about a mile from the school.
All along Congress Heights’ Main Street are signs of resurgence. Banners along the charter school fence, steps from where the shooting occurred, urge “compassion” and “caring.” Banners promoting “Main Street” remind people to support local businesses. A scrolling church marquee tells people to “love one another.”
Tuesday’s gunfire interrupted the morning routine. Customers waited for police tape to drop to pay their gas bills. Others stood outside a children’s medical clinic, their babies in strollers. Police rushed into an alley next to the Life Skills Center and frisked a man who fit the description of a shooter. They later set him free. One young woman came after her neighbor woke her up shouting that her brother had been shot.
“He’s not answering the phone,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. This is too much.”
Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.