The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. schools are trying to help students cope after a violent start to the academic year

A banner shows the names of students who have died.
A banner shows the names of students who have died. (D.C. Public Schools)
Placeholder while article actions load

It was game day. Ballou High School’s football team was facing rival Anacostia High. Two powerhouses vying for the Southeast Cup championship. In typical high school tradition, Ballou held a pep rally in its gymnasium ahead of the Friday evening game, marked by a performance from the cheerleading squad, an introduction of the football team and a class competition of tug of war.

Three days before the Friday pep rally, freshman Steffen Brathwaite, 16, was fatally shot a few miles from the neighborhood. The celebration would go on, but on this day, in between cheering for the football team, students would take time out to mourn Steffen.

And James.

And Joevon.

And Gerald. And the other Ballou students who have died in recent years.

Three people under the age of 17 have been fatally shot in the District since the start of the academic year on Aug. 26. An additional 19 children have been victims of nonfatal shootings, according to data from D.C. police.

Some neighborhoods, like the one where Ballou sits, have seen more than their share of students who have died in violent circumstances. But kids still must go to school, and administrators and teachers must provide them with a sense of normalcy after tragedy.

The pep rally two weeks ago reflected the delicate and important role schools play in helping students cope with violence.

The rally unfolded like most — with loud, spirited cheers. A few students had made banners in art class, and the pictures and names of classmates who didn’t live to see graduation were displayed in the gym.

Melanie Morgan, a Ballou senior, wanted to honor Steffen, so in her second-period class, she wrote a poem about the everyday violence that claimed his life and those of other teenagers she had grown up with.

When she read her poem aloud, Melanie said, the gym went quiet. Some students cried.

“It was important, and we feel like we should remember all of our peers even though they are gone,” she said.

Two friends shot dead in the neighborhood. What could he do? Keep writing music.

So far this year, 129 people have been killed in the District, compared with 116 killed at this time in 2018. The first weeks of school followed a deadly summer in which three children were fatally shot between Memorial Day weekend and the beginning of classes.

The victims have been middle- and high-schoolers. In July, Karon Brown, 11, was fatally shot in Southeast, weeks after he graduated from fifth grade at Stanton Elementary.

“The vibe now for teens is, ‘What’s my point?’ ” said Jimmie Jenkins, a basketball coach in Southeast and a supervisor with the D.C. attorney general’s ­anti-violence program Cure the Streets. “You have teens that are being shot that have nothing to do with these things — they’re going to school, they’re going to sports, and they’re still getting shot. ‘What’s my point?’ I feel their pain.”

When Jamel Kirkland, 17, was shot and killed last week, his former classmates at KIPP DC Somerset College Preparatory struggled. Jami Dunham, KIPP DC’s deputy chief academic officer for high schools, said some parents picked up their children early because they were so distraught.

School officials there said the mother of Jamel’s close friend told administrators her grieving son would probably be unable to attend school for the week.

The impact of the violence and the death of a student doesn’t stop at one school, or even one neighborhood

Extra mental health counselors were also dispatched to SEED Public Charter School, where Jamel had attended classes through ninth grade.

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

A leader at the D.C. military academy Jamel attended said a staff member had to take time off because he was so upset about the teen’s death. His twin brother’s high school and the youth recreation leagues he participated in all had people who were affected by his death.

At Somerset, staff social workers and psychologists were available, and they made special check-ins with students they knew were close to Jamel.

The grief seemed to intensify. Somerset lost another student, Maurice Scott, 15, in May, and students are still reeling from his death.

“Many of our students came in understandably very visibly upset,” Dunham said. “Many students wanted to talk and share their feelings, and others wanted time to internally process or not process in the moment and get back to school and be around friends and staff who they know care about them and feel a sense of normalcy.”

Donna Bonavia, an art teacher at Ballou, said that after a death, her students often use art to process the loss. The portfolios of her Advanced Placement art class last year included powerful paintings addressing the violence in the students’ neighborhoods. Blood, bullets and chained fences were some of the images in the students’ work.

Na’Kiya Butler, 18, a senior at Ballou, has used the art class to express the anxiety and depression she faces.

She said that after a student’s death or violence around school, her classmates often chat and laugh in class like typical teenagers. But their art reflects a different reality.

“We don’t talk about it; the canvas is how we express ourselves,” Na’Kiya said. “I feel people understand artwork more than when I say those feelings.”

Na’Kiya said that whenever she returns to school after summer, anxieties about her own safety reemerge. And when a student dies, she replays the same thoughts.

“Every time it happens, I think, do I know this person, have I talked to him, do I know who killed him?” she said.

For Melanie and her friends, the fear of violence rarely eludes them.

“My classmates, we like to be in the presence of one another because you never know the next person to go or what will happen,” she said.

Each time she and her friends leave one another, they always say “love you” and “be safe.”

Dunham said that even though death has become a normal occurrence in many students’ lives, it is still traumatizing.

“Kids know it’s not right,” she said.

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news