The first line of security at most high schools in the District of Columbia are metal detectors and screening devices like those shown here at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast staffed by security personnel. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)
The first line of security at most high schools in the District of Columbia are metal detectors and screening devices like those shown here at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast staffed by security personnel. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

Youth from the District will join thousands of protesters from across the country at the “March for Our Lives” anti-gun rally on Saturday, March 24 to call for an end to the epidemic of mass school shootings.

Students in the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute (MBYLI) say they will lead efforts to get District students involved. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that a pre-rally with District youth will be held Saturday morning at Folger Park, located at 2nd and D Streets, SE at 9 a.m.

“We are spreading the word in our schools,” said MBYLI Youth Mayor Zende James, 15, who expressed his concern that District youth have not been engaged enough by adults in recent discussions centered around gun violence and school shootings.

“Teenagers in the city are having the conversation about gun violence amongst themselves, but adults haven’t really engaged us,” he said. “We want to give a youth perspective on the issue.”

Thousands of teenagers will converge on the nation’s capital exactly 37 days following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 when 17 people were killed by a 19-year old gunman, Nikolas Cruz, who fired on them using an AR-15 assault rifle in the school.

In the wake of the Douglas shooting, students in Parkland and across the country have been speaking out and organizing by holding school walkouts and marches leading to a national demonstration on March 24. The March for Our Lives movement was “created by, inspired by and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar,” according to their mission statement.

“In the tragic wake of the 17 lives brutally cut short in Florida, politicians are telling us that now is not the time to talk about guns. March for Our Lives believes the time is now.”

Many District Youth Fear Possibility of Shootings at School

In the District, Zende said gun violence remains a prominent issue that has affected many of his friends.

“In D.C., we haven’t had a mass shooting, but shootings happen throughout the year,” he said.

The MBYLI Ward 4 representative, Ramani Wilson, 16, said she and her friends have almost become “numb” to gun violence.

“When me and my friends talk, we talk about leaving the city and going away for good,” Ramani said.

She said she has lost four friends in the past year to gun violence including fellow MBYLI participant Zaire Kelly, 16. Zaire, an exceptional student who attended Thurgood Marshall Public Charter School in Southeast, was gunned down by a robber less than 300 feet from his home in Northeast just days after the school year started last September.

School safety is a priority in the District, according to MPD Chief Peter Newsham who said he’s looking forward to reviewing the reports from the shooting at Parkland.

MPD Chief Peter Newsham (Shevry Lassiter – The Washington Informer)

“D.C. schools are in a better place,” he said, “but there may be something we’re not doing or need to do better.”

In the District, at most schools, public and charter, visitors are required to pass through a metal detector and there are 313 unarmed security guards that provide protection, as well. For the past 15 years, MPD has assigned resource officers to its school security division. Newsham said there are 100 resource officers assigned to schools in clusters instead of one for every school due to budget constraints.

One resource officer, who asked to remain anonymous, acknowledged that students know what to do in case of an emergency in the schools where he is assigned.

“They know they have to police themselves and if something like Parkland were to happen, they already know to shelter in place.”

Teachers seem to be the most concerned about safety and procedures, he said, and parents are the ones about whom he is most concerned.

Regina Belton, 32, of the Mayfair community in Northeast said, “On a scale of one to 10, I’m going to go with a solid three,” as she spoke about her sense of preparedness at Neval Thomas Elementary School where her daughter attends first grade.

“How I feel about not knowing the procedures or plans if there is a school shooting at my child’s school is devastating to me,” Belton said. “It should be mandated that she (the principal) is obligated to tell the parents what’s going on. Even though it hasn’t happened, who’s to say that it won’t?”

While schools with active security concerns and placed on lockdown are periodically announced in the District, neither Newsham nor others could confirm how often safety drills are performed throughout the school system, or if parents are made aware or asked to participate.

“That is a DCPS policy,” Newsham said.

Do Black Lives Really Matter?

Last week, when students across the U.S. staged walkouts to express their demands for stricter gun laws, D.C. students participated, as well.

Despite D.C.” strict gun laws and its Safe Passage program, gun violence tops the list for the concerns of District youth. And many of them say more must be done.

“Most people don’t care about the gun violence in D.C. because it’s mainly Black teenagers, and a lot of people don’t care about that,” Ramani said.

She said the march will give District teens a space to include themselves in the conversation about guns.

“We need to speak up more and include ourselves,” she added.

Views from Prince George’s County

Students at Crossland High School arrived at school for a typical day to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

But a threat on social media against the school March 6 forced the school to go on lockdown and parents to pick up their children early.

Police announced the arrest that night of a 14-year-old boy charged with making a threat of mass violence. Police determined the boy, whose name got withheld because of his age, had no means to carry out the threat.

More than a week after the incident, a few students interviewed said no one was hurt and they are fine.

However, some fights between students and other mischief activities take place within the school of slightly more than 1,000 students.

Kaily Gomez, a ninth-grader who wants to become a pediatrician, said some students smoke marijuana in the bathrooms. She talked about a recent fight between boys that started in a classroom and spilled into the hallway.

“Somebody else could’ve been hurt,” said Kaily, 14. “We have security guards, but they can’t stop everything.”

Kaily’s great-grandfather, Ken Legget, expressed concern about the recent school threat and other incidents at the school.

“With the exception of what happened here with that mess, she’s fine,” Legget said. “She handles herself well.”

Two other students, who declined to be identified, confirmed the fight Kaily described.

“[Crossland] is all right to me. Some boys be acting crazy, but I’m good,” said a student near a Metro bus stop along Temple Hill Road.

For Parents, it’s all about Safety First

After a former teacher’s aide at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary was charged with producing child pornography two years ago, Prince George’s County Public Schools implemented new safety measures.

The board of education approved new policies in July 2016 that include: enhanced training of employees and volunteers; updated curriculum on age-appropriate teachings to prevent child abuse; and surveys of buildings to mitigate abuse and criminal conduct.

One way for greater parental involvement – student safety sessions hosted by the school district’s Department of Community and Family Engagement. After the Woods Elementary School incident, officials began to hold sessions for parents on how to identify possible situations of their children being abused either at the hands of an adult or peers.

The sessions also teach parents about other safety measures for their children.

“The first thing a parent needs to tell their children is ‘We have no secrets,’” said Shelia Jackson, director of the department during a March 13 interview. “Parents have to be strong. Children don’t have privacy rights. When it comes to a child’s safety, you must know everything about who they are in contact with.”

Alongside the safety sessions, fingerprint background checks are done for $56.

However, parents with children on free and reduce lunch can receive them for free. Once they’re cleared, they must volunteer in their child’s school.

Two more safety discussions and background checks have been scheduled for April 12 at Potomac High School in Oxon Hill and April 26 at Columbia Park Elementary in Landover.

“We really want parents to understand how much children need them engaged as volunteers [such as] going on field trips and hosting different events” Jackson said. “Children need to be safe and having someone fully vetted in their lives makes everything better.”

WI Contributing Writers Randi Martin and D.R. Barnes and WI Staff Writer William J. Ford contributed to this article.

Tatyana Hopkins – Washington Informer Contributing Writer

Tatyana Hopkins has always wanted to make the world a better place. Growing up she knew she wanted to be a journalist. To her there were too many issues in the world to pick a career that would force her...

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