Seventeen-year-old Amir Whitehead is so troubled by Baltimore’s escalating violence that he’s determined to move out of state as soon as possible.
“I’m not going to college in Maryland, and I’m definitely not coming back to live here,” said Whitehead, who is in the 11th grade at Gilman School in Roland Park. “I don’t want to deal with the violence. If I’m out late at night, I check out my surroundings. If I’m out on the weekends, I check to make sure I’m not being followed. I want to make sure that everything is as it should be.”
As Baltimore is on the brink of exceeding 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row, local residents are becoming increasingly on edge. And parents, like Amir’s mother, Karsonya Wise Whitehead, worry about how the epidemic of shootings is impacting their children.
“Since the Baltimore uprisings, there has been this rising tension throughout the area,” said Whitehead, an associate professor of communications at Loyola University who hosts the “Today with Dr. Kaye” radio show on WEAA-FM.
Whitehead also is the author of the 2015 book “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys In a Post-Racial America.” (Amir has an 18-year-old brother who attends college in Tennessee.)
“My sons feel the tension even more than I do," she said. "There have been fights at White Marsh and fights in the Inner Harbor and fights at the State Fair. The potential for violence is everywhere.”
Calling a moving van is one strategy for dealing with that tension, but it’s not the only one. Whitehead and other local experts have devised methods for helping youngsters cope with violence they’ve witnessed firsthand or experienced indirectly through news reports.
Specific strategies differ with the child’s age, but the underlying message is the same:
“Reassure them that you’re doing everything you possibly can as their parents to keep them safe,” said Bronwyn Mayden, executive director of Promise Heights, a program operated by the University of Maryland School of Social Work that focuses on helping children in the Upton/Druid Heights neighborhoods go to college and embark upon successful careers.
Mayden recommends that parents anticipate the potential frightening experiences their children may be exposed to and then rehearse routines the kids can follow in these high-stress moments.
“When they come home from school, teach them to lock the doors and put down the window shades," she said. “Teach them to recognize the sounds of gunshots. When they hear that sound, teach them to move away from the windows and get down on the floor.
“Talk to your children and answer their questions about what is going on," Mayden said. "But don’t go into too much detail if the child is very young.”
Another strategy: Promise Heights, in association with several local community groups, has developed what Mayden describes as a “walking school bus.”
Volunteers agree to walk the same route before and after school each day. They escort the kids on their “route” to the local elementary or middle school. Mayden said that in addition to protecting the children — there’s safety in numbers — these walking buses provide other benefits: They reduce absenteeism and tardiness.
Whitehead said she and her husband adopted a similar system of rules and routines that they rehearsed when their sons entered their teens and stopped relying on their parents for transportation.
“With every year that passed and they got older, the conversations would get more serious,” Whitehead said.
“We’d say, ‘What do you do when you’re on a basketball court and an argument breaks out?’ We’d ask, ‘What is your next move? Can you pay attention to your instincts that a conflict is escalating? Can you walk away instead of feeding into it?’ "
Mayden recommended that parents contact the school principal when their middle or high-school children tell them they have witnessed bullying. Sometimes, she said, a prompt intervention can prevent something that begins as a scuffle or shoving match from mushrooming out of control.
Not only might it save a life, it’s reassuring to children when grown-ups take control.
“That’s the time to get involved,” Mayden said. “The school system is set up to deal with that type of situation, and they’re more than willing to respond.”
Another strategy might seem obvious but has proven to be effective — turn off the television and limit your children’s exposure to news reports on social media.
“Studies have found that exposure to gun violence by hearing about it from friends or seeing it on the news is associated with internalized or externalized behaviors in adolescents,” said Adam J. Milam, a faculty associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who works with the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. “These adolescents are more likely to either act out or become involved in violent behaviors themselves.”
Milam said it can help some youngsters to confront their fears directly by participating in activities sponsored by such anti-violence organizations as Baltimore Cease Fire or National Night Out.
“Children can learn coping strategies by relating to other people with similar concerns and finding out how they’re managing their own stress,” he said.
Whitehead admitted that she’s occasionally saddened by the restrictions she and her husband have needed to place on their sons’ activities.
“We’ve tried to contain the environment, and that means we’ve limited the experiences our sons could have," she said. “There’s no way that they move about the city as freely as we did when we were growing up.”
But her regrets are fleeting when she considers the alternative.
“It does break my heart to restrict their freedom,” Whitehead said. “But you know what would break my heart even more?