The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their classmates are murdered, then they take the SATs: How gun violence shapes academics

Anacostia High students in Southeast Washington hold up electric candles during a vigil in October for Thomas Johnson, a classmate who was fatally shot. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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Darnell Johnson was about to take the PSAT. There were 165 minutes and 139 multiple-choice questions in front of him. But how could he focus when his classmate was dead?

Five days earlier, Johnson’s classmate, a freshman quarterback named Jaquar McNair, who had college aspirations and loved taking cruises with his family, was fatally stabbed at a Metro station.

The teachers at their charter school in Northeast Washington tried to help, pulling grieving teens aside during testing breaks, cheering them up with jokes McNair, 15, used to crack.

But those teachers knew there was no way to stop the grief caused by McNair’s death, and by the deaths that would soon follow, from seeping into the classroom.

Like a stone tossed into a pond, a single act of violence causes waves of loss in the schoolhouse: Test scores drop. Attendance falls. Instruction time wanes. In the days following a shooting, students often spend more time with therapists than with math teachers. Art classes become therapy sessions. High school pep rallies turn into student-organized memorials for fallen classmates.

And students’ academics suffer.

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Johnson said he tried to use the killing of McNair to motivate him during the PSAT that October day at Friendship Collegiate Academy Public Charter School. But it wasn’t easy.

“It felt like a regular test,” he said. “But it was hard for me to concentrate.”

The same month that McNair was killed last school year, a student at Southeast Washington’s Anacostia High died in a shooting just days before his classmates took the high-stakes SAT exam. The result: Fewer students took the exam that day. Students told the school “they couldn’t think straight,” Anacostia Principal William Haith said, “because they just lost a friend.”

And that was all before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as the school year is getting under way, officials are seeking to help schoolchildren who have experienced months of trauma: relatives killed, parents’ jobs erased, school buildings shuttered, and even more violence than last year, when D.C. saw a decade-high number of homicides and the killing of 22 minors.

Murders are up 17 percent so far this year, to 134. Already, 25 teenagers and children have been killed, including 11-year-old Davon McNeal, who was fatally shot in the head at the end of an anti-violence cookout his mother planned in Southeast Washington. It’s a violent trend unfolding across the country, as cities including Chicago, New York and Kansas City have experienced spikes in gun fatalities this summer. Their death tolls also include children.

As students return to virtual classrooms, the initial focus is on mental health, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in an interview. His team hosted a virtual session for families this summer about how children process grief. Activists across the country, meanwhile, are calling on lawmakers to divert money from school security and pour it into mental health and violence prevention programs.

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City leaders have promised to put more mental health workers in schools. They say they have established a mental health hotline that students can call anytime. They are improving telehealth options and working to have mental health specialists physically in communities.

But without in-person interactions, it’s still unclear how effective any of this can be.

“It’s traumatic,” Ferebee said. “Students have experienced trauma and stress.”

Pulling the right lever

When a violent crime occurs within 250 feet of a student’s home, that child is 10 percent more likely to miss school the next day, a 2019 citywide attendance report determined.

A 2016 study of Chicago public school students found that violent crimes negatively affected students’ standardized test scores. Students exposed to violence in third grade performed worse on tests than their peers by the time they reached 11th grade, the research found. And if children are repeatedly exposed to violence, their test scores take a bigger hit.

“There is a lot of evidence that stress, trauma and worry — just being anxious — it’s hard to concentrate, and it’s hard to perform your best,” said that study’s author, Julia Burdick-Will, who’s now an assistant professor of education and sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “Even if you know the material, it can be hard to bring it up in the filing cabinet in your head.”

In 2018, Tyshon Perry, a 16-year-old sophomore at KIPP DC College Preparatory, had just completed the first part of a multiday standardized exam used to assess student progress and quality of schools. On his way home, he was stabbed to death while protecting a friend who was being attacked at a Metro station, according to police. Students witnessed the attack.

KIPP spokesman Adam Rupe said the school delayed testing for a few days, but the next week, Tyshon’s classmates had to complete the exam. Scores at the school dropped dramatically before jumping back up the next year.

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“Students were having to step out of the room to see a counselor and were not excited to be in school or participate in this,” Rupe said. “Many students saw his death happen; they were there.”

Ayana Buggs, who was in Perry’s class, thought it was too soon after her friend’s death to take the exam. She was one of the few students who stayed home. Buggs didn’t like talking to the counselors, and she found herself getting upset when she saw students who weren’t friends with Perry crying.

“I would go to school and leave — I would do it for a week or two,” Buggs said. “I didn’t want to take the test. I was still processing.”

Even during everyday classroom activities, students’ minds can be consumed by the violence in their neighborhoods. Karen Lee, a history teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast Washington, said she assigned 18 students to write an essay last school year. They could write about anything — their families, their ambitions, their favorite celebrities. Nine of them wrote about gun violence.

After the 2017 murder of one of her students, Lee moved her class to the library for a couple of weeks because the presence of the empty desk proved overwhelming to her and to students.

When students in a U.S. government class at Anacostia High were assigned to craft legislation on any topic, nearly half chose legislation to strengthen gun-control laws and prevent violence.

“When you talk about the two levers when it comes to running a school, you look at instruction and climate,” said Haith, the Anacostia principal. “And those are the two levers we look at when we decide where we are going to focus our resources. And sometimes we have to deal with the climate before we can deal with the instruction.”

The consequences of these killings extend beyond the boundaries of any one school. Jamel Kirkland, 17, was a student at a D.C. military academy when he was fatally shot last school year. His death devastated students and staff members at his own school; one teacher even asked for time off in the aftermath. But the city also dispatched counselors to meet with children at Kirkland’s former middle school, SEED Public Charter School, and his twin brother’s Friendship charter school. And at KIPP DC Somerset College Preparatory, which Kirkland also attended, some parents had to pick up their children early because they were so devastated in the days following his death.

He had ‘goals and a vision.’ Jamel Kirkland is D.C.’s eighth victim age 11 to 17 to be fatally shot this year.

'Bossing up'

Last school year, long before young demonstrators marched through the nation’s capital, protesting the inequities that leave their schools and neighborhoods beset by trauma, students at Anacostia High held a small rally of their own in October.

Their classmate, Thomas Johnson, 15, had been fatally shot. In the week after his death, his classmates attended his funeral and took the SAT. But they also teamed with the ­anti-gun-violence group Moms Demand Action to stage a rally at the school in his honor.

“Every year, for the past four years I’ve been here, a person has been killed from our Anacostia community,” a student organizer said at the event.

In many District public schools, students’ academic lives, even their extracurricular activities, are shaped by the violence that surrounds them: The student groups they join, the speeches they hear from city and school leaders, the hallway conversations between classmates.

Elsewhere in the District, two students at Dunbar High were killed last year. Ahkii Washington-Scruggs, a 17-year-old football player, was murdered. A few months later, 15-year-old Amoni Richardson was killed by a driver as she walked to campus.

Dunbar teachers wanted their students to transform their grief into something productive. So the teachers abandoned their typical African American history and public policy lessons and invited a new speaker to class.

The speaker, Lauryn Renford, was a freshman at George Washington University. Two years before, when she was a high school junior in the District, her boyfriend and classmate, Zaire Kelly — “my favorite person in the world,” she said — had been killed in a robbery on his way home from a test prep class.

Renford told the students how she missed classes so she could go to therapy. When she attempted to take the PSAT, she sweated and cried, tears falling on the test, she said. Later, during the SATs, she threw up on her exam and had to leave.

“I would go in, and all I could think of in the midst of all that silence and structure was that my boyfriend was dead,” Renford said in an interview. “I felt that there were so many more important things happening, and I just couldn’t concentrate on circling in answers.”

Renford and Zaire’s twin, Zion, became activists after his death. They showed up to D.C. Council meetings and started an ­anti-violence advocacy group at their Southeast Washington school called Pathways 2 Power. Renford helped create a large mural featuring the faces of children murdered in the city. And she started talking to students about how she managed to juggle grief with more mundane teenage stress.

At Dunbar, she told students about the final stage of grief, the one that came after all the disbelief and guilt.

The “bossing up” phase, she called it. “How to turn your grief into power.”

Navigating new crises

In June, as protests gripped the District, it quickly became clear that Renford’s message had sunk in with Dunbar’s students, whose Instagram pages were flooded with messages in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Sensing their need for an outlet, teacher Nubia Gerima-Rogers invited nine to a protest near the White House.

“A lot of kids were really overwhelmed,” Gerima-Rogers said, “as if covid isn’t enough.”

In the District, the students who experience violence in their neighborhoods also are more likely to have lost family incomes and loved ones to the virus, which has disproportionately hit Black and Hispanic communities. At Ballou High School in Southeast, which has lost multiple students to gun violence in recent years, a teacher said that others have lost relatives to the virus.

“We definitely need more mental health workers, but you start to get diminished returns after a certain point,” said Nathan Luecking, a social worker at Anacostia High. “What we are up against is an overwhelming force of trauma and general insecurity that is going in the community.”

As the protests continued in the nation’s capital, 21-year-old Kamonie Edwards was fatally shot. She was a former Anacostia High student, a fixture in the neighborhood whom many current students knew, Luecking said. And in June, Antwon Duncan, 20, another former Anacostia student who loved writing songs in the school’s recording studio, was shot to death in the neighborhood.

Tragedy also struck Dunbar this summer. On Aug. 9, Richard Bangura, 18, a standout 2020 graduate of the school, was shot in the head two blocks from his home. He died a week later, the day he was set to leave for Temple University.

Before his death, Bangura wrote an essay about his sophomore year, when he was shot in the leg a block from school and had already lost friends to gun violence.

“Life has hit me with many powerful blows that have made attempts to destroy my psyche,” he wrote, “including seeing friends taking their last breath, standing over friends and family in caskets, or just negative atmospheres.”

A day after Bangura was killed, Taijhon Wyatt Jr., a 17-year-old rising senior at Dunbar, was fatally shot in Northwest Washington. The jovial football player was on the same team as Washington-Scruggs. A third Dunbar student was shot and survived this summer.

In July, students at Kramer Middle learned about the death of their classmate Davon. School buildings were closed for the pandemic, but the city reopened Kramer in the days after Davon’s death so his classmates could meet mental health workers.

Michael Redmond, assistant principal at Kramer Middle, said that when Davon died on the Fourth of July weekend, the mother of one of his best friends called him. Her son was distraught, and she didn’t know what to do.

Redmond brought food and rushed to the home of Davon’s friend — the boy he was always with since preschool.

The child was trying not to cry.

“I told him it was his responsibility to carry on the life, love and legacy of his best friend,” Redmond said. “These are tough lessons for an 11-year-old to learn. I wanted him to know he could cry. . . . He was trying to be so strong.”

Dana Hedgpeth and John D. Harden contributed to this report.