Gun Violence Against Children Leaves Broken Hearts, Empty Desks At School
Eddie Hill IV never showed up for the fifth grade. The 10-year-old was shot and killed enjoying his summer vacation from his front porch in the Lewis Place neighborhood, which borders the Central West End.
His death has upended the school year for his former classmates at Pamoja Preparatory Academy at Cole.
Eddie is one of a dozen children who have died in violence so far this year, part of a dizzying streak of young children being killed by bullets not meant for them, while doing things a kid is supposed to be doing in the summer: playing in the yard, eating pizza and going to football games.
Learning is “slowly but surely” getting back on track at Pamoja, said Eddie’s math and science teacher, Rashida Chatman.
“The first week was extremely rough for us. We had to do a lot of just healing things — talking and singing and crying and hugging together,” Chatman said. “We’re just now getting to a space where it’s easier for us to reference him without breaking down as a whole family inside our classroom.”
Chatman’s students have pinned notes addressed to Eddie on a bulletin board above a collection of his things. A blue binder stands upright. “My science notebook by Eddie Hill IV” is written in pencil in loopy cursive.
Six St. Louis Public Schools students have died this year — four over summer vacation and another two in the early weeks of the school year — along with at least two more who have been shot.
The violence and lack of arrests for the crimes (only one person has been charged) have frustrated police, angered residents and vexed school leaders.
“You work really hard to try to get prepared to open school such that it is as least chaotic as possible for kids and families and teachers and everybody else,” St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams said. “And then the chaos of kids dying happens and you can’t control it, you can’t impact it, and so you feel really helpless.”
The Monday after a particularly violent August weekend required the district to send crisis response teams to 10 school buildings to comfort classmates, siblings and cousins of those shot.
“It’s tough to lose a classmate,” said Stephanie Moore, a social worker at Ashland Elementary and a crisis team leader for schools on the city’s north side.
Moore was at Clay Elementary on the first day of school, where 7-year-old Xavier Usanga was supposed to start second grade. He was shot outside his Hyde Park home on Aug. 12, the night before the start of classes.
Gun crimes and violence are frequent in the neighborhood surrounding several public schools. For many kids in St. Louis, losing family members, neighbors and classmates is almost routine, according to social workers.
“You see them hurting, but it has become so normal they don't even know how to process it anymore. It's like, 'OK, that happened,' and just keep moving forward,” Moore said. “It's almost like sweeping it underneath the rug, and at some point we have got to address all of these lumps underneath the rug.”
Hospital records show a child in the St. Louis area is shot at least once every four days.
“There’s no answers. How do we fix it?” asked Oluyemisi Folarin, principal of Herzog Elementary School, which lost a student in the second week of school. “We’re at the elementary level, how do we fix it for our children so that’s not a result for them?”
At a vigil Aug. 28 in front of Herzog School, kids sat quietly on steps up to the school in the North Pointe neighborhood. Many of their teachers stood nearby. Names were slowly read aloud over a speaker system. They were not the attendance for those who were present but for the kids who will never show up for school again.
The children, teachers and neighbors had gathered to mourn the death of 8-year-old Jurnee Thompson, who had been killed the previous Friday after attending a high school football event at Soldan High School. Jurnee was just days into third grade at Herzog.
Two days later, candles that spelled out Jurnee’s name in the parking lot during the vigil sat extinguished in a corner of the lot. Kids climbed in the playground nearby.
Inside the school, third grade teacher Mary Wright hasn’t been able to touch the things in Jurnee’s desk yet. Wright and her students have grieved together and escaped to the safe confines of a small cloth tent Wright has pitched next to her desk when sorrow becomes too much.
Jurnee’s classmates made cards for her with messages such as, “She will be my best friend forever.”
“I look for her every morning,” Wright said. “I miss her because she kept our class going.”
The loss of Jurnee has brought her class together, Wright said, as they try to love on each other a little more. Laughter and learning are slowly returning to her classroom.
“It'll get back to normal, and they'll bounce back because they're kids and they're resilient,” she said, “but it's something that'll always be on their heart.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney
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