As a group of men tossed bills and dice against a sidewalk outside the McCulloh Homes housing project one spring afternoon, Tavon Winder confronted two onlookers to ask if they were with the police. The game was illegal. He didn’t want any problems. He’d had enough in his life. Under the 31-year-old’s T-shirt, a scar snaked up his stomach, and beneath his pant leg, he balanced his weight on a prosthetic leg.
Both injuries were gained not from a far-off war but from a shooting on a nearby corner in West Baltimore.
“It’s rough,” said Winder, a father of two who admits to selling drugs in 2002 when he was shot. “I know a lot of brothers and friends that are gone. I almost lost my life right down at the end of the street.”
Next door to the housing project that was featured in the HBO series “The Wire” are two schools in one building: Renaissance Academy High School and Booker T. Washington Middle School for the Arts. Those who work here say the building’s red-brick facade is a flimsy shield against a neighborhood and city all too familiar with bloodshed.
A recent survey of 209 students at the schools reveals a generation with a stark familiarity with violence. Of the youths questioned, 43 percent said they witness physical violence one to three times per week, and 40 percent knew someone with a gun. More than 37 percent said they knew someone under the age of 19 who had been killed by violence, according to the survey released in February by Promise Heights, an initiative run through the University of Maryland School of Social Work that provides support to schools and community residents.
Renaissance mourned three students this school year lost to violence: Ananias Jolley, 17, who was stabbed in a biology classroom and died a month later; Darius Bardney, 16, who was killed in an apparent accidental shooting at an apartment building; and Daniel Jackson, 17, who was shot several times less than two miles from the school.
“I don’t know if people understand what is happening in Baltimore,” Renaissance Academy Principal Nikkia Rowe said. “If you just rode around the city and took pictures of the memorials that are standing from the candlelight vigils, it would blow your mind.”
She sometimes recommends students join the military after graduating because, she said, it seems a safer option.
Rachel Donegan, program director of Promise Heights, said that it’s hard to do future planning for teenagers in general, but that the challenge is especially difficult “for kids whose future honestly doesn’t have a lot of meaning for them.”
“A lot of our kids have been told that they don’t matter, they don’t fit any place in the world, they’re throw-away, they’re not worth anyone’s time, they’re just going to end up in jail anyway,” she said. “We see kids say, ‘Like, what is the point?’ ”
The Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore, where the schools are located, was once home to notable names: Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, and jazz legends Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. Now, it is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore, with a 59 percent poverty rate for children, compared to 28 percent citywide. More than half of the community’s households earn less than $15,000 a year.
It’s a neighborhood, Donegan said, where fifth grade graduations are celebrated in grand style because families can’t count on the next achievement.
“Families and students have this sense of if we don’t do this now, we won’t get a chance to do it later,” Donegan said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh my kid isn’t going to go to college.’ It’s ‘Will my child even be around, even be alive, to have those milestones?’ ”
On Monday, Donegan’s staff responded yet again to a student’s death, this time a seventh grader at the middle school. A spate of six shootings in two hours over the weekend had claimed the life of DiAndre Barnes. He was 13.