The crackle of gunshots has become white noise for children living in parts of north St. Louis.
“I got used to it,” a fifth grade girl said, “because it happen a lot, so I’m just not scared of it no more.”
They know just what to do if they’re inside:
“When I hear gunshots, I duck on the floor and get under my bed,” said a sixth grade boy.
When they’re outside and there’s shooting, they know to look for a safe place to run.
“When somebody start shooting around me, I make sure my siblings in front of me first because they don’t really run that fast,” the fifth grader added.
These students at Ashland Elementary School in north St. Louis — whose names St. Louis Public Radio is not using to protect their privacy discussing such a sensitive subject — have grown numb to the high rate of gun violence, their teachers say. The school is surrounded by more gun violence than nearly any other city school, according to St. Louis Metropolitan Police data.
The frequent wailing of emergency sirens is enough to rocket Principal Paula Boddie’s senses to a 10, three years into overseeing the school. It serves nearly 200 students from the Penrose and O'Fallon neighborhoods. St. Louis police reported a total of 177 homicides and violent crimes involving guns in those neighborhoods between January and November 2019.
“Very frequently, things that send me into heart palpitations, my children are just going by saying, ‘Oh, Dr. Boddie, it’ll be OK,’ and they just sort of move along,” Boddie said. “But it concerns me. What is that doing to the mind of a child who makes that OK?”
Constant exposure to violence causes anxiety and stress, psychologists have found, leading to aggression, poor school outcomes and substance abuse later in life.
“The trauma has become normal, the stress has become normal,” said Stephanie Moore, the school’s social worker. “And it really is unfortunate.”
Instead, educators say the impact of gun violence rests deep within their students, tangled up with other impacts of poverty, such as hunger and housing insecurity, seeding trauma and sometimes causing aggressive behavior.
“It’s sad because they’re completely desensitized, yet everything that they want to do revolves around confrontation, fighting and shooting fake guns at each other,” said Santana Barnes, a staff member at Ashland.
‘We all we got’
Barnes is a building sub by job title but considers himself more of a roving school counselor. He goes by “Coach” and works frequently with a handful of students who have the most trouble tamping down their emotions to sit through a lesson.
Barnes grew up in north St. Louis, bouncing between the city and St. Louis County. He has his own stories of close calls with guns.
He dresses down for school and tries to be a mollifying presence for the kids. Most often during afternoons at Ashland, he's roaming the halls in a trademark flat-brimmed ball cap. If he finds a student wandering the halls or overhears a classroom disruption, he’ll pull students out of the room and line them up along the wall for a talk.
“I tell them, ‘How will you survive, what will you do if you’re always fighting each other?’” he said. “And you can’t expect it to change tomorrow, you can’t expect it to change next week. It is a constant, constant repetition, and they need to hear it because guess what, they constantly hear gunshots.”
Before dismissing the students back to class, Barnes makes them repeat a call-and-response: “Ashland, we all we got.”
A safe space
The grown-ups have been shooting since the children were old enough to remember.
“I’m used to these gunshots because mostly they used to do it every time when I was 4 or 5, whatever age I was, they used to be shooting around my block,” said a boy in third grade.
Sitting in plastic chairs in a circle, their hands stayed up for the question of whether they knew someone killed by a bullet.
They stay away from the alleyways and the city parks. Too much shooting happens in those places. Several students and parents readily recall the moment playing on the jungle gym or playing hoops turned into a sprint to safety.
But they feel shielded at school. They don’t hear the shooting as often inside these walls.
“I feel safer at school, because at home you’re not supposed to go outside at night because there’s a lot of drive-bys during that time,” said a boy in fifth grade.
Also, they have Coach or Ms. Moore, the social worker, to confide in. Students gather for mindfulness exercises every day.
The last question was what these children think would make their neighborhood a place where they can play outside again.
“Without no guns, no weapons, no none of that.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney
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