At 17, Donte Crawford looks into the video camera and describes what it means to survive in West Baltimore.
“Try not to get killed before you’re, like, 21,” he says. “Or get locked up until you’re, like 30. That’s about it.”
About a month after saying those words in a video published by the Baltimore Sun that asked students to document their community, authorities say Crawford walked into a third-floor biology class at Renaissance Academy High School and stabbed 17-year-old Ananias Jolley several times, piercing his heart.
Crawford, now 18, was charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting a trial set to begin July 29.
But before Crawford wound up in jail, those who knew him at his public high school saw him as a troubled young man who was learning to read and wanted more out of life than what he had known.
“He was a kindhearted kid,” his Renaissance mentor, Antwon Cooper, said. He described him as a “typical teenager” who was dealing with a lot of trauma in his life. “He was making such progress and trying to become a better person. He was becoming a better kid.”
John Comer, who works at the high school through the nonprofit Communities United, said he first met Crawford during a counseling circle designed to help students work out their problems. The teenager, he recalled, was crying.
Later that same day, Comer found Crawford looking much less vulnerable, standing outside the school, posturing with flexed muscles as a group of teenagers who had taunted him stood across the street. Comer gave Crawford a ride home. The teenager asked him that day for help finding a job, Comer said, and asked again a few weeks before the stabbing.
Since Jolley’s death, Comer said he has struggled with his own feelings of failure.
“It’s not that I didn’t reach out. I did,” he said. “I question: Did I reach far enough?”
In the video, Crawford’s difficulty to read is clear.
The first time the camera shows him, he is sitting with a workbook, sounding out letters one by one.
He then explains how you have to take care of every part of a flower to make it bloom, and that if you do that, “when it blooms, it’s going to be beautiful.”
He also talks about giving and receiving love.
“If you’ve never been loved before,” he says, “how do you take love if you don’t understand it?”