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As District officials and residents continue to debate how best to address violent crime, young people have increased their demands for measures that holistically address their mental and emotional trauma.

Since the beginning of the school year, Kendrick Richardson, a youth who attends Theodore Roosevelt High School in Northwest, has spoken out about how, even as the pandemic and dire economic straits have compelled some young people to inflict harm on others, he and his peers still cannot access on-campus mental health services. 

During a recent online forum with Attorney General Karl A. Racine, Kendrick took his message a step further when he asserted that law enforcement officials haven’t scratched the surface in curbing youth criminal activity. 

Days later, Kendrick reaffirmed his viewpoint with a call not only for around-the-clock mental health services but after-school activities and year-round employment for pre-teens and teenagers. 

“We shouldn’t be prosecuting everybody, especially youth,” said Kendrick, an 11th grader who participates in after-school programming coordinated by the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights. 

“Police officers should get to understand the youth better. Mental health plays a huge role. I know if I was stressed out, seeing my mother going through something and I didn’t know how to survive, I would go out and do whatever I could. And COVID-19 doesn’t make things better,” Kendrick said.  

During a recent news conference, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert J. Contee III said 14 out of the 18 carjackings that have occurred this year involved young people. He went on to attribute two-thirds of last year’s carjackings to that demographic while calling for what he described as more robust accountability measures against youth crime.  

In the aftermath of a D.C. hotel shooting, D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) tied the increase in crime in that community to the movement of unhoused people into the Van Ness Days Inn and what she described as the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health’s failure to treat people with mental health issues. 

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) later refuted that theory. 

Cheh’s other comments, particularly her call to increase penalties for youth crime, incited fury among teachers and community organizers who said the District’s tough-on-crime approach has further marginalized young people and their families. 

Within hours, they took to social media to explain how Cheh’s comments shed light on the District government’s dismissal of young Black lives. 

After two years, the pandemic continues to expose and exacerbate the need for mental health services for young people. While the American Rescue Plan Act has brought an influx of federal funds dedicated to bridging mental health gaps, students said they continue to reel from anxiety brought on by COVID-19 and uncertainty about how safely they can learn while in person.  

Toward the end of last month, students at Banneker and other District schools protested in the middle of the school day to highlight their qualms about how administrators have communicated the severity of Omicron’s spread. Other issues students have raised involve the lack of after-school activities and administrators’ insistence that they continue to pursue academic excellence even as District schools struggle to consistently maintain COVID mitigation strategies

Liv Birnstad, a DC State Board of Education student representative who attends Capital City Public Charter School, said that she and her peers, like young people at other District schools, often find it difficult to access mental health services during school hours. 

Since starting her tenure on the state board, Liv has spoken at length about the need to increase access to mental resources and ensure transparency in the decision-making process. 

Though she expressed appreciation for state board members and school administrators who have attempted to console students, Liv said increasing lines of communication can help put students’ minds at ease. 

She said schools still have not met that goal, much to the detriment of the young people they’re pushing to excel academically. 

“Some students find it hard to get motivated and as things get worse, it’s harder to reach out for help,” Liv said. “With Omicron, students are really worried about the increased rate of transmission and that we’re [navigating] in-person learning with no chance for virtual learning. Students know administrators can’t share everything but we hope for more transparency about what’s to come so we can feel secure.”

Word in Black is a collaboration of 10 of the nation’s leading Black publishers that frames the narrative and fosters solutions for racial inequities in America.

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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