Tricia Lawrence was about to close her first official week as head of Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School when she saw Jeremiah Brogden for the last time.
Jeremiah gave his principal a big hug and joked that she looked “mighty yellow.” Lawrence was dressed in one of Mervo’s colors for a home football game on the school’s Northeast Baltimore campus that never happened that day.
Instead, Jeremiah, 17, was shot and killed outside the school shortly after dismissal on Sept. 2. The death of Jeremiah, a beloved junior, football player and new father, rocked his community. The next day, another 17-year-old was charged with his murder. A trial is set to begin this September, according to court records.
The tragedy foreshadowed a year plagued by rising violence against young people.
From Jan. 1 through May 17, the city recorded 21 homicides of people under 20 years old, according to data from the city’s Open Baltimore website and The Baltimore Sun’s homicides database. That’s the most in that age group by that point in a calendar year since 2007, when there were 24 victims through May 17, The Sun’s database shows. And because census population estimates indicate Baltimore’s under-20 population has shrunk since 2007, this year’s homicide rate among young people is higher.
“In the midst of all of this,” Lawrence said, “we’re having school.”
Mervo students, and those at other schools in Baltimore that have faced tragedy this year, have been given access to an array of short- and long-term grief and mental health resources. Experts have turned to alternative therapy practices to try to shepherd students through a year they knew would never be normal.
Children who are constantly exposed to violence struggle to deal with accumulating trauma — even as life continues, experts say. Although Baltimore has long grappled with a high homicide rate and nonfatal shootings, officials say this year has prompted the city’s institutions to rethink their approach to supporting students.
Mervo, which has more than 1,600 students, partners with community organizations such as Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center’s Community Psychiatry Program and Sarah’s House Mental Health Services, LLC to provide various resources.
Immediately following a traumatic event, said Sarah’s House Clinical Director Paul Archibald, students need a quiet place “where they’re allowed to just be,” a potential escape from a seemingly endless chorus of people asking how they’re feeling.
In the days after Jeremiah’s death, the city school system and other government agencies activated a wide network of public and private partners to provide support for the grieving high school.
At the top, the Maryland State Department of Education dispatched a team of experts in social work, psychology, counseling and psychiatry, the agency said in an emailed statement.
City school administrators traveled to the campus to coordinate mental health services for students and staff, calling for help from organizations such as Baltimore Child and Adolescent Response System, a program affiliated with Catholic Charities of Baltimore; the Waverly YMCA; and Baltimore Crisis Response Inc.
On what would have been the first day of classes following the shooting, students were instead invited back to campus for optional grief counseling sessions.
“We eliminated the ‘business as usual’ idea and focused more on healing,” Lawrence said in a February interview.
Latheena Galloway, a cosmetology teacher at Mervo who has been there since 2016, said she would have liked to see a more delayed return to the building.
“That would have helped us regroup as teachers,” Galloway said. “Some people will be OK. And then some others may not.”
The Baltimore Teachers Union this spring submitted a proposal to the school board that in the event of a school tragedy, instruction would cease for two days and educators would have the option during that time to come to school or recover at home. Grief services such as counseling sessions for staff members are typically handled by the district’s office of human capital.
Some community partners say the groundswell of support after Jeremiah’s death did not draw as many students and families as expected.
“When something becomes normalized, people no longer recognize when there’s a trauma,” said Ginna Wagner, executive director for Baltimore Child and Adolescent Response System.
Wagner and her team, who were stationed at the Waverly YMCA in the days following the shooting, were expecting more people than the handful who showed up.
Children are resilient, she said, but they need support to maintain that resilience. Breaking through the disconnect between students and grief support would require leaders to ask teens what they need, Wagner said.
“The adults can come up with wonderful solutions that sound fabulous to us and not have a single youth show up,” she said. “We start by asking the youth, ‘If you could create something and you’d consider showing up, what would it look like?’”
For some Mervo students, Jeremiah’s death is easy to recall. So are the canceled classes, the arrival of counselors and, sometime later, the metal detectors. Still, as the school year comes to a close, some teens are reluctant to revisit the memory of what happened to Jeremiah and how it affected them, grasping instead for happier thoughts.
Anthony Stokes, an 18-year-old junior, said students who don’t take advantage of in-school counseling services might be more open to talking during group sessions or informal class gatherings.
“Some people don’t like talking by themselves,” Stokes said.
Experts might get students to open up through less traditional methods, such as art, music and play therapy. Galloway said her students have been “very disengaged” from their schoolwork throughout the year. She’s tried to use games and icebreakers to encourage more participation in class.
Archibald said one useful exercise is having students examine rap lyrics as a way to break down their own feelings.
“It’s a number of different techniques that you might have to utilize to get young people engaged, rather than the normal, ‘Come and sit down and talk to me.’ Because that’s just not, that’s just not working,” Archibald said.
The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement often works with families affected by violence. Mark Mason, the victim services associate director for the office, praised activities such as swimming lessons or summer camp as a form of therapy.
“The intent behind that is to be able to find ways to distract that person from the trauma that they are currently experiencing,” Mason said.
Since Jeremiah’s death, counselors have remained available on Mervo’s campus for nearly nine months. Lawrence said such ongoing, open access is what students asked for, as opposed to a “one-and-done” approach they’d experienced after seeing violence in the past.
“What they want to see is consistent presence, consistent opportunities to be able to tap into the resources,” Lawrence said. “They’re saying that, ‘You can’t tell us when to cry.’”
City school administrators are also thinking creatively this year about helping students facing grief. Sarah Warren and her team within the system’s Whole Child Services and Support office, which focuses on social and emotional learning and students’ well-being, recognized a need for a broader response that included trusted organizations, as well as longer-term, consistent support, she said.
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Warren’s office spent the year thinking strategically about how to employ a “whole ecosystem of supports” that envelop students — such as sports and other extracurricular activities — that give them a sense of belonging. The system will invest more money next year in such programs.
Still, the churn of crisis and response takes a toll on everyone in the system, Warren said. At one point in February, she felt a surreal sensation as she realized she was carrying on day-to-day work amid the tragedy.
“We’re feeling it,” Warren said. “We’re tired. It’s painful. People are here because they care.”
Although the system had a grief counseling process in place at the time of Jeremiah’s death, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott knew Mervo’s size would demand additional resources, which he moved to make available. Scott, a Mervo alumnus who knew Jeremiah, also ensured some recreational centers had activities ready for students who might have needed a distraction outside school.
Even before the Mervo shooting, city officials were discussing how to better coordinate responses to violence, Scott said. Jeremiah’s killing became the catalyst for the city to “move a lot faster,” setting the tone for a process that has now been used at Patterson and Edmondson-Westside high schools, which also lost students to gun violence this year.
“It angers me that we’ve gotten so efficient and good at this,” Scott said. “This is not something that anyone should be good at because it shouldn’t be happening.”
Baltimore Sun editor Steve Earley contributed to this article.