When the familiar pop-pop sound rang out late Friday afternoon, Tyrese Carter and his friend Destiny McIntosh were watching television in his family’s apartment. As gunshots are so common in their neighborhood, they joked that that was probably the sound they heard.
Tyrese calmly sauntered to the front door to look through the peephole. What he saw outside his family’s Pedestal Gardens apartment in West Baltimore has become heartbreakingly familiar for many city teenagers: a dead body crumpled on the floor.
A new survey of 209 youths in Baltimore reveals just how prevalent violence is in their lives. Forty-three percent of the students said they witnessed physical violence at least once a week, and 39 percent said they knew someone who had been killed before they reached their 20th birthday.
Forty percent knew someone with a gun, and nearly 19 percent said they could easily get a gun, according to the survey released this week by Promise Heights, a program through the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
The survey was taken of students who attend Baltimore Renaissance Academy High School, where one student stabbed another to death last year, and Booker T. Washington Middle School For The Arts.
The students also told survey takers about their ideas for improving their neighborhoods and residents’ quality of life, including more jobs, support groups and activities for young people.
“This is what the kids are telling us,” said Bronwyn Mayden, head of Promise Heights. “We need to use some of what they’re saying to us to determine what we should be doing. They are the ones feeling the effect of violence and may not be going to school because they are afraid.”
Carter, 16, said he thought at first that the person outside his door was playing around. Then his hallway turned into a crime scene, with medics and police milling around. Carter said he wasn’t surprised that the shooting victim, Darius Bardney, was his age.
“I’m used to it,” he said of the violence and gunshots. “I try to be cautious, but I don’t really get bothered by it.”
Promise Heights is one of several organizations trying to foster hope and work together to make neighborhoods safer, in part by reaching out to young people. It recently started an after-school program at Renaissance Academy that includes academic help and community service projects.
The Druid Heights Community Development Corp. also has expanded its youth outreach, enrolling more young people in a summer enrichment program that exposed them to experiences outside their Zip codes. They appointed youth ambassadors to work at the center.
“You are talking about exposure,” said Roscoe Johnson, head of the Druid Heights CDC. “They see a lot of negative stuff, and it is important that we are able to serve as surrogates and provide images and let them know there is hope.”
Some city schools are teaching students conflict resolution and how to talk out problems so that tensions don’t escalate. And Baltimore police have ramped up youth outreach as well.
“These young people can stop conflicts from happening in schools and their community before the police ever have to get involved,” spokesman T.J. Smith said. “What a great day when the police don’t have to get involved and there is less violence.”
On Wednesday, West Baltimore youth led a community forum at Bethel AME Church to brainstorm ways to stem the violence. The survey results were used to spur discussion at the forum.
The forum was organized by a coalition of community groups that won a $75,000 grant to develop a youth violence prevention plan after being featured in a Baltimore Sun series on the hidden effects of city crime. Published in late 2014, the series Collateral Damage detailed how children, caregivers, grieving mothers and others suffer when living in violent neighborhoods.
The groups in the coalition — Druid Heights CDC, Communities United, University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Roberta’s House and Promise Heights — had been working individually to address violence and hope they can do more together.
As part of the forum, The Sun aired a 20-minute video featuring storytelling from four high school students who were given cameras to document how they see their neighborhoods — and ways they could improve them. In the videos, one student said he could die any day, while another talked about the constant struggle to survive.
Carter and McIntosh, who were given cameras, took clips of trash-strewn lots and vacant houses. Carter, who attends Digital Harbor High School, said he felt empowered after the project.
“I felt like I was getting in the neighborhood and actively doing something,” he said.
McIntosh, a 17-year-old student at Carver Vocational-Technical High School, was skeptical that the city would ever change because poverty and violence are so entrenched. But she held out some hope.
“It’s worth trying,” she said.
Shamar Nicholson, a 17–year-old who also attended the forum, said the toll of violence can be crushing. He considered Bardney, the 10th grader at Renaissance Academy who lived in Carter’s complex, to be like a brother. He was devastated by his death, which police say was accidental.
“I want him back,” Nicholson said. “I have never felt like this in my life.”
In November, another student at Renaissance Academy, Ananias Jolley, 17, was stabbed inside the school and later died. His classmate, 17-year-old Donte Crawford, has been charged with first-degree murder in the case. Crawford also participated in the video project with Carter and McIntosh.
Hallie Atwater, a social worker with Promise Heights who works with students at Renaissance Academy, said students seem to become less responsive and numb with each killing that touches their lives.
“It’s sad and not fair, and it’s really adding up in a big way,” Atwater said. “Every time there is a loss, or an incident of violence, it opens up old wounds.”
Renaissance principal Nikkia Rowe has been consoling students since the deaths of Jolley and Bardney, while trying to teach them about the societal ills that plague their neighborhoods, including poverty, institutional racism and mass incarceration.
“The goal is to get the kids in a place where they understand that this isn’t normal, and to really look at the social conditions that allow violence to happen,” she said.
At her school, a mentoring program called “Seeds of Promise” offers students support and guidance, including how to productively settle conflicts. Both Jolley and Crawford were in the program.
Community activists say there are not enough resources to reach all the kids who need help. There are few economic opportunities or recreational activities, or even safe places for kids to hang out, they said.
After the forum this week, the nonprofit groups hope to continue the conversation and host other neighborhood events.
“I am hoping this is a wake-up call and just the start to doing even more,” said John Comer, an organizer with Communities United.
Mark Montgomery, who works with youth at Bethel AME, ended the forum with a pep talk to inspire the youth. As a group stood around him at the front of the room he encouraged them to have hope and told them they were the future.
“People keep asking about the solution to crime,” he said. “You are the solution to crime.”