Students with oversize backpacks holding their parents’ hands as they walked to the front door of Cleveland Elementary gave the first day of school on Monday a feeling of routine.
But a police car parked down the street and a volunteer team stationed at another District school signaled that this academic year was not beginning the way parents, administrators or city leaders had hoped it would.
On Aug. 15, a daylight shooting just a block and a half from Cleveland’s brick structure in Northwest Washington had left a bystander, Matthew Shlonsky, dead. The shooting, possibly related to a dice game dispute, made some parents nervous. Some were reassured by an e-mail from Principal Dawn Feltman last week saying that the school was secure and that students would be safe.
On the way to school Monday, families passed a police vehicle at Seventh and T streets NW, and another car was driving intermittently in front of the school on Eighth Street NW.
“I see it as an isolated incident, hopefully it won’t repeat,” said Eric Graffe, who was dropping off his 6-year-old daughter at the school. He and his family moved here from Venezuela two weeks ago to escape violence. “I feel my daughter is safe.”
The D.C. Public Schools system kicked off a school year Monday, with enrollment projected to surpass 49,000 students — a nearly 10 percent increase from four years prior. The city has closed three dozen schools over the past seven years due to declining enrollment, but this year, city officials celebrated the opening of four new buildings.
That milestone was overshadowed, however, by the effects of a citywide crime wave that has put neighborhoods throughout the city on edge. The rate of homicides would not have seemed unusual five years ago, but it reflects a sharp uptick when compared with recent years. On Monday, the number of killings reached 103 — nearly as many as last year’s total.
The trend has prompted a concerted effort by school officials, police and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to assuage jittery residents.
At an event Monday to extol the opening of the four new schools, Bowser took a moment to address the violence.
“Our kids are energetic and happy to come back to school to focus on learning,” she said. “We have all the resources of our government and our neighborhoods across the District of Columbia working to make our neighborhoods safer.”
Bowser said the city increased its police presence on the streets over the summer, and the city expanded a popular summer jobs program.
Bowser pushed this year to allocate an extra $5 million to the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program to expand it to include young people between 22 and 24.
Officials said they will continue to look for “year-round” opportunities to keep youths off the streets and out of trouble — and to deploy a range of services to help communities deal with the trauma of street violence.
D.C. police officials said citywide there was not an increased police presence for the first day of school. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that throughout the school year, officials will be working to ensure students are safe in school and traveling to and from campus.
“Our principals and school staff are on the front line in this endeavor,” Henderson said Monday. “They do home visits and make sure by working with community members. Some make safe passages to school a priority. We are all working together as a city.”
Spurred by the recent violence, some activists took matters into their own hands Monday to get students to school and ensure that they felt secure.
At Ballou High School — a low-performing high school in Ward 8’s Congress Heights — a group of men representing business professionals, government workers, community activists and the Nation of Islam gathered on the front steps at the beginning and end of the day to greet students.
“We want to make sure they feel safe today and let them know we are here for them,” said Akili West, a public relations professional and local activist.
The group outside Ballou, which coordinated the event with police, wanted to offer positive male role models and a feeling of security after a summer of increased violence on city streets.
“I’m getting tired of seeing mothers crying over stupid stuff,” said Raymond Washington, 16, after finishing his first day as a sophomore at Ballou. In April, he said he spent the day crying when he lost his friend — someone he used to call his cousin because they were so close — to gun violence when a fight escalated.
“If kids could stop getting guns, that would stop the killing,” he said.
One of the activists greeting students Monday afternoon was Christopher Proctor, or “Lil Chris,” a singer in a go-go band and a mentor for students.
“I talk to them about fake weed and gang violence. My voice means something to them,” he said. “They don’t know. Once you shoot that gun, you can’t take it back.”
Despite an uptick in crime throughout the country during the summer months, the D.C. police said there is not a connection between the recent increase in violent crime and school being out of session.
Akiva Liberman, a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, agreed, saying there are a number of factors that could contribute to the spike this summer.
“Unsupervised time of adolescence, yes, leads to more delinquency,” he said. “[But] research shows that heat also tends to lead to more aggression and violence in general.”
Police confirmed that most of the suspects and victims in the shootings this summer were not of school age.
Bowser said her goal is to increase opportunities for young people in the city to be engaged in productive ways so they don’t turn to crime or violence.
Henderson said the school system is also working to keep children and teens busy in healthy ways, by extending the school day at more schools and investing in athletic directors at every comprehensive high school to increase athletic and extra-curricular opportunities.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘Idle minds are the playground of the devil.’ If kids are busy and engaged, then they don’t have the time or opportunity to do some of the negative behaviors,” she said.