The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It makes me angry’: After deaths of classmates, D.C. students say they feel unsafe on their daily commutes

Kenniya Corbett, 14, left, and her sister Mia Jones, 16, enter the Deanwood Metro station while commuting from their home in Northeast Washington. They plot their trips to school meticulously to avoid danger. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Mia Jones bounced out of her squat brick housing complex in Northeast Washington wearing a Harvard University hoodie just after 6:30 a.m. Her sister, who always takes a little longer to get ready, dragged behind.

The sisters — Mia will soon be a high school senior, her sister a sophomore — could have left a few minutes later and still beat the morning bell, but they know crime mostly skips the early hours, and they wanted to avoid any danger on their commute.

So they hugged their mother, swung their backpacks on their shoulders and started the first leg of an hour-plus trek that includes three Metro train lines and a brief bus ride.

“We don’t tell our mom everything we see on our commute,” Mia said. “This is what we have to do, so I don’t want her to have to worry.”

Throughout the country, cities are struggling to ensure students arrive at school safely — and back home in the afternoon. In Chicago, community organizations strategically flood streets with adults who monitor students on their commutes. In Los Angeles, officials employ similar safe-passage strategies, with some commuting zones tagged as dangerous because of gang violence.

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In the District, too, students fear the mundane routine of commuting to school. From sunrise to when the sun sets and students are ready to go home after an afternoon of sports and extracurricular activities, the fears ­deepen.

Each day, Mia meticulously plans her commute to and from KIPP DC College Preparatory school, texting her mom when they veer from their plans. When she sees classmates at a train station, she gives them a friendly hello and keeps walking, standing with her sister on the platform.

Tyshon Perry, a classmate of Mia since sixth grade, was killed at a Metro station. The 16-year-old was stabbed in May 2018 at a transit depot that hundreds of teens from different schools use during their afternoon commutes. Police say Tyshon died while protecting a friend who was being attacked over an argument that happened at school.

“It makes me angry more than anything,” Mia said. “Literally, he lost his life at the train station.”

Two weeks after Tyshon was killed, Jaylyn Wheeler, 15, was fatally wounded. He was shot with a .25-caliber pistol hours after a fight erupted at Ballou Senior High, the Southeast Washington school he attended. And in 2017, Zaire Kelly, a high school senior, was returning home from a college-prep course when a man robbed and fatally shot him in the head.

In 2019, four juveniles have been killed in the District. In 2018, 13 were killed. Even more have been shot and survived.

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Students and parents are demanding the city pay attention to the perils lurking along commutes, which range from stray bullets to adolescent fights that escalate.

The District is attempting to quell those dangers, employing more adults to monitor students on their commutes and ramping up security.

In a city where few students take school buses and many attend campuses outside their neighborhoods, it’s no easy undertaking.

“For far too long, D.C. has run a narrative that crime is down, but the community feels like crime is down the street, down the corner, and at their front steps, and at our schools,” said Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), whose ward has the city’s highest rates of violent crime. “It’s our jobs as leaders in the community to protect our babies.”

Destiny Young, who graduated in June from Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, lost two classmates during high school. Zaire died in September 2017. Four months later, Paris Brown, 19, was murdered.

“The city could do more,” Young said.

That spurred Destiny and two classmates — Lauryn Renford and Malia McMillan — to start Pathways 2 Power, an ­anti-gun-violence advocacy group. As part of their campaign, Destiny showed up to a dozen city meetings on safe passage to make sure students were heard.

Among their ideas: a partnership between the city and ride-hailing companies so students can summon a car in the evening once they complete after-school activities.

The city has committed money to explore creating a phone app to connect students seeking a buddy to join them on their commutes.

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Malia feels unsafe walking alone in her neighborhood, so her family frequently sends her to school in an Uber.

Lauryn used to meet her boyfriend, Zaire, in the morning so they could take the train together. After Zaire’s death, Lauryn’s mom no longer felt it was safe for her daughter to use public transit. She started driving Lauryn, but she had to stop when it made her late for work too often. So Lauryn finished her senior year on public transit.

“It’s really easy to experience a death and become desensitized,” Lauryn said. “I don’t know why we didn’t. We didn’t become immune to these deaths, and we spoke out.”

Mia and her sister, Kenniya Corbett, also attended a packed safe-passage meeting at their school with top law enforcement and education officials. Kenniya — standing feet from the District’s deputy mayor for education — performed a spoken-word poem, which started with her having a typical teenage phone conversation interrupted by the thunder of gunshots.

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It’s not safe out here in this world.

'Stay out of trouble'

The middle school student snatched a bright blue slushie from the girl’s hand and took a large gulp on a sweltering June afternoon. A couple of onlookers started to yell at the teen on the corner of a Southeast Washington street as the girl tried to grab her drink back.

Victor Battle knows adolescent spats can intensify, carrying adult-size consequences.

He plucked the boy from the street and walked him a few steps into a bustling corner store, shook the owner’s hand and took out his credit card.

“Don’t steal people’s stuff,” Battle told the boy. “Stay cool. Stay out of trouble, okay?”

Battle bought the teen a slushie of his own for $1.50 and walked him across the street to where he would catch a bus home.

“Give him a couple bucks, and he’s not going to bother no one out there,” Battle said.

Battle and about a half-dozen other men line Mississippi Avenue SE each day to wait for students from Hart Middle School to pour out after the final bell, directing them to bus stops — and away from trouble. The men working with Battle are known as “violence interrupters,” a job title with growing popularity in cities attempting to stop shootings before they happen.

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The violence interrupters — they’re city employees working as part of the D.C. attorney general’s Cure the Streets program — often grew up in the same neighborhoods they patrol. They are fluent in the customs and dangers of the streets.

Battle, an outreach coordinator with Cure the Streets, and his colleagues say students are more likely to confide in them than in their teachers.

“A lot of this is miscommunication between them, and we go in and help them communicate,” Battle said, “before it goes on to social media or they go after each other.”

Battle and the violence interrupters first meet students leaving Hart Middle and then head a few blocks to meet students at Somerset Prep DC Public Charter School. They also visit corner stores, checking in on students who may linger, encouraging them to take a bus home.

Jimmie Jenkins, a violence interrupter and youth basketball coach, said students’ fears in Southeast Washington have heightened since Somerset freshman Maurice Scott was shot in May outside a corner store near school.

Every student and parent seems to know Jenkins, a community activist for nearly a decade who grew up around the streets he monitors.

Teens greet and hug him when they pass him on the street, and they know he is quick to open his wallet when they feel unsafe.

Jenkins, a supervisor with Cure the Streets, says he can spend hundreds of dollars month on Uber because so many students tell him they feel unsafe heading home after sports practices.

Jenkins said he recently noticed that students from Somerset and nearby Ballou fought after school. So he organized a Ballou vs. Somerset basketball league for a few weeks. Trouble went away.

His phone bursts with the phone numbers of parents, who call to check on their children.

“In most cases, we know your mom, we know dad,” Jenkins said. “We went to high school with them.”

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Some residents and school leaders are urging the city to put more people like Jenkins near their children’s campuses.

An administrator from Hendley Elementary in Southeast pleaded for help at a public safety meeting attended by the D.C. police chief. Just last month, bullets twice pierced windows at the school. One of those times, children sat near a window hit by a bullet.

School leaders canceled an end-of-year field day because of fears about students being outside.

“Will [violence interrupters] be there in August when our children return and remain there so that our children can get to and from school every single day of the 180 days that they are here safe and sound?” asked Christina Hanson, an assistant principal at Hendley. “So they can walk in this building and be scholars, and engage in the arts, and pursue their education without fear of the neighborhood.”

Mia Jones’s mother, Hermione Corbett, knows she cannot control what her daughters encounter on their commute to school.

She wishes she could drive them, but she has a 5-year-old son she needs to escort to school and must get to her job in Maryland on time. She worries about what will happen when Mia graduates high school and her younger daughter has to make the commute on her own. By then, she hopes to have moved closer to the school.

“As a parent, I fear for them,” Corbett said. “I try not to instill that in them. I have to trust them to be responsible to make the right decisions. I just have to trust that, and that can be hard.”

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