For some of the students and teachers of DC Prep Benning Middle School, the gun violence they witnessed outside their Northeast campus during school hours conjured memories of past traumatic experiences and stoked fears about their demise in a supposedly neutral space.
Over the past few months, those feelings inspired writing workshops about gun violence, and more recently a block party and rally on the front steps of DC Prep Benning Middle.
That public gathering served as an opportunity not only to unite community members but to cajole into action the people that event organizers said haven’t done much to address the issue.
“During the most recent shooting, we were in our classrooms and we thought this would be nothing but a regular day,” Jamia Hardy, an eighth grader at DC Prep Benning Middle, told The Informer as she recounted what would become the third time within a calendar year students put into practice what they learned during safety drills.
Upon her return home, Jamia would express her anxieties about attending school to her mother.
“They didn’t call this a regular lockdown,” Jamia said. “We all sat there really quietly. Some people wanted to call their parents. Ever since I came to DC Prep, we practiced a lockdown drill once a month, [but] you don’t see parents taking their kids out. People are just used to hearing about this [but] it’s not normal and we shouldn’t have to adapt.”
Jamia’s peers in her social studies class shared similar sentiments, especially upon learning that many of them had friends and family members who have experienced gun violence.
As of last week, homicides in the District have increased by 4 percent since last year, according to the latest data from the Metropolitan Police Department. One of those deaths, involving a man in his early 20s, happened one block away from the DC Prep Benning Middle campus last month. On November 8, three teenagers had to be treated for gun wounds during two separate shootings up the street from the school.
In response to what teachers described as a growing nonchalance, 7th and 8th graders have spent class time watching slides and learning about the mental and emotional toll that gun violence takes on victims, families and community members. They also completed assignments prompting them to explain the mindset of the aggressor in those situations. That exercise often culminated in group discussions intended to make students more comfortable speaking about the feelings of vulnerability they’ve internalized over time.
In other instances, guest speakers, like Jamia’s uncle visited the class to impart words of wisdom.
On Saturday afternoon, Jamia and her mother stood before the DC Prep Benning Middle community as the mother, in an impassioned cry for caution, reflected on the moment she learned that an assailant shot Jamia’s uncle several times and killed his friend at a house party. Jamia solemnly held up a large white poster bearing photos of her uncle in the 1990s, before and after the shooting confined him to a wheelchair.
During the block party, guests commemorated friends and family members lost to gun violence with bracelets. Community members also ate burgers, hot dogs, and other treats while frolicking, dancing to music and competing for special prizes. Organizers collected book donations for children of color and parents of youth who have experienced trauma.
In the days leading up to the block party and rally, students and teachers combed the streets and hit the airwaves to garner support for their efforts. Less than a week after the Nov. 16 event, organizers said their attention has turned to effecting policy.
“There wasn’t a lot of action taken. We want to see that schools in Wards 7 and 8 are being provided great services, like Safe Passage,” said Donsha Watkins, a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher at DC Prep Benning Middle School who coordinated the block party and rally with Ellie Webster, the operations manager.
“We want it to be equitable, so kids can get the same level of access,” Watkins said. “Schools have to be willing to stand up with parents and community members. We want people to be informed and productive so they can empower the community.”