Early this spring, Shamyia Ford Jennings, 17, walked with her cousin and a friend to a corner store in north St. Louis. Minutes later, she was in St. Louis Children’s Hospital with a bullet wound in left leg. Her friend had also been shot, in the foot.
And a couple of summers ago, Devin Smith, 16, was playing basketball on the playground with family members when someone fired shots in his direction. His cousin was hit in the drive-by.
In a class therapy session at Emerson Academy Therapeutic School in the historic neighborhood known as the Ville, Smith and almost everyone else raised their hands when the counselor asked, “Who here knows someone who has been shot or killed?”
Gun violence in the city of St. Louis escalated this year. This past summer alone, 10 children were killed, most of them while engaging in daily routines.
In harm’s way
The fear of pain or death from gun violence is crippling for some students at Emerson Academy. Many said the violence has stripped away their childhood freedoms. Smith said he tries to stay out of harm’s way.
“It’s getting to the point now where you can’t even play outside anymore,” Smith said. “I barely come outside nowadays. I’m pretty much a homebody, which is sad, because I am at the age where I should be enjoying my life or getting out, or getting to understand life.”
Ford Jennings remembers just two years ago when she could go outside in the Ville and sit on the porch without being afraid of being killed. She said she could walk to the park without her mother being worried if she would make it home alive.
Now just strolling in the neighborhood or hearing about gun violence can trigger traumatic memories from the day Ford Jennings became a target.
Ford Jennings spoke about her feelings and the reality of gun violence with her parents and counselors. Still, she said she was discouraged for a while because she could have been the next child added to a lengthy list of murdered children.
Ford Jennings said that when it comes to the slain children, she is heartbroken because she knows some of them personally.
“It's kids” being killed, Ford Jennings said. “Nobody’s family should have to experience that.”
Like others, Smith has accepted the fact that gun violence against children in St. Louis is normal now.
“We are used to seeing [gun violence] down here, and it’s sad,” Smith said.
Smith said he feels like sometimes he needs a gun because there are days when he cannot catch his bus to school without running into gangs.
Black teens are so often shot and killed that their deaths are a national crisis, according to a recent study from the Violence Policy Center, an educational think tank.
In 2016, nearly 8,000 African Americans were killed nationwide. That year, 333 black people in Missouri died in gun violence, the most in the nation. The children who were killed this past summer in St. Louis were all African American.
Much of the city's gun violence stems from poverty and the proliferation of firearms, said Andre Smith, chairman of the social science department at Harris-Stowe State University and former detective with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police. (He is not related to Devin Smith.)
Missouri is an open-carry state, where anyone 19 or older can legally possess a gun without a permit.
“If a young person is in any kind of conflict and they have access to a lethal weapon, then I think that’s the biggest issue out there with gun violence,” Smith said. “That's something that we're not addressing.”
“I believe we should address it the same way that we addressed the drug epidemic. There was a conscious effort to try to stop the flow, but we're not doing the same thing when it comes to the flow of firearms into the city,” he said. “We're not trying to stop the supply of firearms to these young folks in north St. Louis.”
Smith has a stark view of the way children, like those at Emerson Academy, are being subjected to everyday violence.
“Collectively, we are hurting society, because these children have suffered trauma,” he said. “We have to see this as abuse.”
Devin Smith agrees. He said he feels violated at times because he does not feel protected from gunfire.
To help students cope with environmental stressors, Emerson Academy offers children smaller classrooms and a specialized curriculum.
The school is part of Annie Malone Children and Family Services, which provides outreach programs and counseling services to the children and their parents. This year, the academy is implementing programs related to trauma from gun violence.
Some of the children go through anger management training to help them learn how to avoid confrontations at home and at school, said Channel Thomas, who is a counselor and program manager at Annie Malone.
Thomas said many students have diffuculty focusing at school because they come from troubled homes and do not see a therapist because their families cannot afford it.
The violence intervention program that Thomas manages is just one resource that Emerson Academy's students and parents can benefit from weekly.
“There are times where I have counseled kids who were hopeless, they didn’t have any goals or aspirations,” Thomas said.
Devin Smith doesn’t consider himself among the hopeless. He wants to be an entrepreneur later in life. Still, he knows others have a harder time thinking positive.
“One of my friends said no matter what he does, he feels like his environment is steady pushing him down,” he said.
Help on the horizon?
Children around St. Louis may feel a sense of relief soon. On Friday, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously passed a $5 million funding bill for Cure Violence, a program that other states use to prevent gun violence and homicides.
Mayor Lyda Krewson is expected to sign the bill. In addition to the $5 million, the city had already pledged $2 million toward crime reduction and violence-prevention plans.
Effective solutions can’t come soon enough for Devin Smith and his peers.
“We actually need help,” he said. “We need mentor support groups, people who are inspiring the young folks to continue to push forward and do great things.”
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.
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