Brookland Middle School student Leana Jenkins counted among those who last saw Karon Blake alive and well in the classroom, just hours before a vigilante shot and killed him less than a mile from the Northeast school.
Since Karon’s death, every activity done in his name, including schoolwide discussions and the decoration of his locker, bring to mind for Leana and other young people how much adults don’t understand about their plight.
Leana said young people today are growing up at a much faster rate than youth of previous generations. Even with the out-of-school time programming available at Brookland Middle School, students often run the risk of being locked out of the building during after-school hours if they leave campus for a moment.
In October, Leana encountered such a dilemma when she forgot about her weekly Higher Achievement meeting and attempted to return to campus. She said that security waved her off and told her to leave, right around when it started getting dark.
Leana’s mother, Ana Rodriguez, a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education DC, later visited Brookland Middle School to speak to administrators about that situation.
An aspiring homicide detective, Leana said the conversation around Karon’s whereabouts during the early morning hours of Jan. 7 have taken the attention away from the person who shot and killed the teenager.
She stressed that the credibility of the investigation has been threatened as a result.
“This shouldn’t have happened to anyone at this young age,” said Leana, a seventh grader at Brookland Middle School. “They’re not even trying to say the guy’s name. It makes the case harder. [The authorities] don’t really care about the case that much. People are confused and they just keep talking about young people [allegedly] breaking into cars.”
A Renewed Spotlight on School Safety
Last Saturday, young people appeared on panels at the Anacostia Arts Center in Southeast and other venues throughout the District where they spoke candidly about the violence in the city, and the toll it has taken on their mental wellbeing.
Around the same time, hundreds of people gathered near the Brookland Manor apartments on Saratoga Avenue in Northeast for a vigil in honor of Karon. Black and blue balloons went into the sky. Images of Karon and calls for justice emanated from a projector onto buildings in the apartment complex.
Days before, on Jan. 11, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser sat down with DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, DC Public Charter School Board executive director Michelle J Walker-Davis, Deputy Mayor Paul Kihn and a bevy of school leaders to discuss school safety concerns.
Bowser said school leaders discussed how to strengthen communication between them and public safety officers. They also addressed the impact of social media and music on conflicts, and the difficulties in navigating less punitive disciplinary procedures.
Another topic of concern centered on the incremental removal of school resource officers (SROs), as mandated in D.C. Council legislation that passed during the last budget season. Bowser said that the decline of SROs from more than 100 to nearly 60 has drastically affected school climate.
She then revealed efforts to revisit this issue during upcoming budget discussions.
While speaking with The Informer days later, D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At large) implored Bowser and others who want more police in schools to keep in mind that incidents of gun violence rarely happen on school grounds. Henderson reflected on council hearings where young people compared their school hallways to police substations, adding that execution of school disciplinary procedures, not detainment, should suffice in situations where young people break rules.
At Jefferson Middle School Academy in Southwest, some students, like Shaunah Boone, have grown to accept the police presence as a necessity during lockdowns and when administrators have reason to believe that a fight will happen after school.
Even in those situations, Shaunah said administrators’ transparency and willingness to listen to students have created an atmosphere of trust.
For months, administrators at Jefferson Middle School Academy have quelled small on-campus scuffles and monitored students’ social media activity in anticipation of conflict.
They’ve also established relationships with businesses in the surrounding community that’ve been wary about letting swathes of students in their establishment. Meanwhile, parents are often encouraged to contact Jefferson Middle School Academy principal Greg Dohmann about any issues.
As she prepares for high school, Shaunah continues to express hope that the District becomes safer for young people. For the time being, she has grown to embrace the police who show up in front of her school, even calling them cordial in their interactions with students.
“When we see police, they don’t cause any violence in school,” Shaunah said. “Their presence keeps us safe [but] a relationship with the police would make it better. When we see them, we think negatively but with communication, we would think problems are getting solved [when we see them].”
A Family Searches for Answers in Enrollment Quandary
For weeks, a Southeast teenager has accompanied his aunt and uncle around the District to collect documentation from his former schools so that he can enroll in a new school.
Earlier in the school year, the young man walked through the main entrance of Ballou Senior High School, entered the cafeteria with other ninth graders, received an academic schedule and started taking his core classes.
During that time, he also participated in junior varsity football tryouts, even going as far as taking a physical and submitting identifiers and date of birth.
As the school year went on, the young man, admittedly, stopped attending class because of a strained relationship with his teachers. As he frequented the halls, he and other students garnered a reputation as the “hallway kids,” especially during times when engaged in physical conflict.
While in the hallways, the young man said he and his cousin stayed in one part of the school to avoid students from other neighborhoods who had problems with them.
Over the course of three months, the young man developed a rapport with administrators, school security, and even a couple of teachers. The young man alleges that all of this came to an end in December when administrators told his aunt and uncle, who had just gained legal custody of him, that the young man hadn’t been enrolled in the school.
The young man said his aunt and uncle, who visited Ballou High School to see his nephew’s most recent report card, said administrators didn’t want to answer questions about how the young man was able to enter and walk through the school every day without being officially enrolled.
Neither Willie Jackson, principal of Ballou High School, nor DC Public Schools central office responded to an Informer inquiry about this situation.
“Everyone was confused because I was coming to school and going through metal detectors to go to class,” the young man said. “The teachers and some of the deans knew who I was. The coaches knew me from the summer. But the administration said I never went there.”