Jimmie Jenkins and Michael Steve Zanders operate sports leagues in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. Both men have lost students they coach to gun violence. They do all they can to help kids keep their grades up, improve their games, and stay busy and out of trouble.
But the coronavirus and mandated social distancing mean kids cannot go to the gym and play sports with their teams. The coaches fear the extended closures could be perilous for children who live in neighborhoods with some of the city’s highest crime rates. Those concerns are shared by city leaders and community activists.
“I don’t know. This is all new to me, and it’s kind of scaring me,” said Zanders, who is 58 and recovering from pneumonia unrelated to the coronavirus. “I don’t want to be out there, but I’ve got kids calling. They want me to come out.”
During summer break, teenagers have jobs and academic and athletic opportunities to keep them on track. But during the coronavirus-related closures, there is little youth programming beyond the academic work that students are supposed to complete while schools are shut down.
Officials say they are working to ensure students remain safe as schools are expected to remain shuttered until at least April 24.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, who said he is in regular contact with school leaders, emphasized that while keeping students safe is a priority, they do not believe children being out of school inevitably results in more crime.
From March 12 through March 22 — a period covering the first days of school closures — police say violent crime fell 9 percent compared with the same period a year ago, from 99 incidents to 91. Robberies not involving guns are up slightly, while robberies with guns went down.
“I hate to always go to children being home means that children will be violent,” Bowser said at a news conference Friday. “So we give them the benefit of the doubt, but we are also making sure that all of our police resources are being deployed in ways that are productive.”
A senior D.C. police official said school resource officers — police who are assigned to work on campuses and build relationships with students — are still interacting with students. Those officers are stationed at schools where thousands of children and teenagers pick up free lunches each day — even while classes are canceled.
“We are still having face-to-face interaction with kids as much as we possibly can, given social distancing parameters,” said the police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Lashonia Thompson-El, co-chief of violence reduction in the D.C. attorney general’s office, said her team has been connecting with people deemed at high risk for being involved with violence to educate them about the coronavirus and explain why it’s so important to practice social distancing.
Violence interrupters — who have ties to the community and attempt to prevent violence — said they will be working their normal hours during the closures. They are wearing gloves and following their normal routes, checking in and talking to people they encounter in corner stores, barber shops and street corners. Their typical hugs and fist bumps are now pretend fist bumps from a distance, in which knuckles never touch.
Boye Sofidiya works with violence interrupters at the D.C. attorney general’s “Cure the Streets” program. He helps oversee two program sites in Northeast and Southeast Washington, and part of his job includes ensuring students commute home safely from school.
Sofidiya said neighborhood feuds are behind some of the city’s violence. Teens from rival neighborhoods often attend different schools and participate in different activities, stemming violent interactions. With school out, Sofidiya said he has seen teens from rival neighborhoods interacting.
The violence interrupter said he and his team have helped broker agreements between feuding neighborhoods, and he hopes they hold strong during the stress-inducing closures. He said they have also helped ensure that there are easily accessible food distribution sites so students don’t have to travel into different neighborhoods to grab a free lunch.
When Sofidiya sees a group of kids, he reminds them of the importance of not congregating.
“Everyone is concerned about safety,” Sofidiya said. “A lot of the kids who don’t see each other during the day are starting to interact . . . This is going to be a test of all the settlements of disagreements. We hope they hold up, and we think that they will.”
The public school system is also trying to keep students engaged. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said school staff members are instructed to interact with students twice a week via phone call or text, or online. Mental health workers are supposed to connect with students they suspect are struggling. If they have trouble reaching students, Ferebee said they should be tracking them down.
Employees at the D.C. attorney general’s office are attempting to reach students on social media to provide resources they can turn to if they experience violence at home.
Heavenly Anderson — the 17-year-old senior class president at Friendship Collegiate Academy Public Charter School — said some classmates are taking recommendations seriously about staying healthy during the coronavirus pandemic, remaining at home and practicing social distancing. Other friends continue congregating and hanging out.
She said she does not want to tell people what to do, but when her friends inform her of a social outing, she asks them to think about how their actions could affect others.
“I know a lot of my friends don’t like the idea of being out of school so long. Certain people can’t do work unless they’re in a school environment,” Anderson said. “For us young adults, it’s on us to make sure you are directing your time positively.”
Jenkins, who operates a basketball league in Southeast Washington, said he instructs his coaches to send students positive messages and encourages kids to watch old basketball games on TV and advises them to list their goals and to research colleges.
He also recruits listless teens to help with community service projects, including delivering groceries to the elderly.
“If you are a kid and sports is all you know to keep you out of negative things, giving back to the community can be another vehicle,” Jenkins said. “It’s a sense of empowerment.”
Raymond Weeden, principal at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Southeast Washington, said his priority during the school closure is to make sure students are safe. He has instructed his staff to call students regularly to check in and is working to secure Internet for teens lacking access. He wants students to feel connected to school when they have lost all structure and routines in their lives.
One student in crisis called school staff last week, saying the living situation with her mother was untenable. School staff members were able to mediate the situation.
Still, there’s only so much staff can do when school is closed, and not every family has the availability and resources to supervise their kids during the day.
“I trust and I hope that [students] are going to do the right thing, but I also know that it takes one suggestion to do something, quote, unquote cool, to get them to go outside and do the wrong thing,” Weeden said.