Students at Excel Academy in West Baltimore haven’t experienced a school shooting, but have lost seven schoolmates to street gun violence in the last year and a half, and can share stories going back decades about the outsize role guns have played in their lives and the impact it has had on them. (Ulysses Muñoz, Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun video)
The students at Excel Academy in West Baltimore don’t fear school shootings.
In a city where bullets pop almost everywhere else — when they’re walking home from school, riding a city bus, hanging out with friends, sitting on their porches, even just taking out the trash — their alternative public high school, with its brick walls and metal detector at the door, is one of the only places they feel safe.
The students have lost seven schoolmates to gun violence over the last two school years, and can share stories going back years before that about the havoc guns have wrought in their lives.
Like their peers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman last month shot 17 students and faculty to death, the Excel students have strong thoughts and feelings about the impact of gun violence, and the changes they want to see locally and nationwide.
And like their peers in Parkland, they want leaders to listen to what they have to say.
“The older people in power, they just hear about it. We see it,” said Deon Jones, an 18-year-old senior at Excel. “With the kids who have passed away at this school, we’ve seen how it affected their family and how it affected their friends.”
“We are the future,” said Raydonna Hawkins, a 17-year-old senior. “If we don’t speak, nobody will ever hear our words.”
Amid the national debate over gun control in the wake of the Parkland shooting, and ahead of student-led walkouts and marches for gun control in Washington, Annapolis and around the country this month, The Baltimore Sun sat down with seven students at Excel to listen. The students were chosen by Principal Tammatha Woodhouse, who described them as typical of the alternative high school.
Asked how many of their loved ones had been shot, the participants struggled to calculate the toll.
“You’re talking about my whole life?” asked a third.
But they were ready with stories of loved ones lost — a parent, a sibling, a best friend, neighbors — and of witnessing shootings firsthand.
They talked openly of the trauma they’ve suffered, which they said simmers just below the surface and which they work to suppress, lest it cause them to act out and derail their plans to get out of Baltimore for good.
Deaundra Fisher said her older brother was killed about five years ago. She later witnessed the shooting of her young nephew.
“They say it’s more love in the world than hurt,” said Fisher, an 18-year-old senior. “I want to go to where it’s love and not where everybody constantly getting hurt all the time.”
Dajona Bass, an 18-year-old senior, said her father was killed when she was six months old.
“It always makes me feel numb on the inside,” she said. “I didn’t really get to grow up with him or have a male figure in my life to guide me in the right way, or just things that a father can teach a daughter.
“Whoever took his life, they didn’t think about his little baby, or just what would go on with him being gone. I want to see everybody come together and I want the murder rate to stop going up. I just want everybody to be peaceful and just put the guns down.”
Baltimore, population about 615,000, suffered 342 homicides in 2017, a record per capita. It was the third straight year of more than 300 killings. Homicides were down more than 20 percent in the first two months of 2018, but remained above the five-year average.
Arron Fleming, a 16-year-old junior, said he once saw a shooting from a few feet away.
“I feel like this whole city [is] a war zone for real, and it’s like I done got used to it,” he said. “Like it doesn’t faze me anymore.”
Hawkins said she’s tired of people dying every day in the city.
“You don’t want to go to sleep one day and wake up the next morning and somebody is telling you that somebody in your family, somebody that you love, has passed away. That hurts people and it affects people,” Hawkins said. “I would like to see more kids outside and playing and doing children things instead of locked up in a house because their family is scared for them to go outside.”
The students don’t know a world where gun violence isn’t ever-present, they said. At times, they feel like hostages in their own city. Several said they stay inside as much as possible.
Bass, who has twins, is attending Baltimore City Community College next year and plans to become a nurse practitioner. She said many students in Baltimore fear for their lives through no fault of their own — caught up in a silly beef among acquaintances, or some other violence that has nothing to do with them.
“Killing made the city so bad, everybody is basically scared and so cautious and worried about their life, we can’t live our life how we want to live,” she said. “We gotta live it to be extra safe, because you never know what people’s motives are or why they want to kill, or [if they are] just killing for no reason.”
The students said they were glad to have a metal detector at the entrance to their school, and think similar devices should be installed at all schools.
It’s as easy as walking down the street and getting some chips
John O’Neal, a 20-year-old senior, on access to guns in Baltimore
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They rejected the idea, backed by the National Rifle Association and President Donald J. Trump, of arming teachers to protect students from shooters. Jones suggested arming teachers would be dangerous because a student might be able to overpower a teacher and take his or her gun.
The students said they believe the conversation around gun control should go far beyond school safety.
For starters, they said, buying a gun on the black market in Baltimore is much too easy.
“It’s as easy as walking down the street and getting some chips,” said John O’Neal, a 20-year-old senior.
The NRA is fighting calls for more gun control. The gun rights group says the FBI failed to respond to red flags raised through existing channels about the alleged shooter in Parkland, and has accused the media of stirring the debate for ratings.
“The government has proven it cannot keep you safe,” NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch said this week. She asked why the Florida shooting has gotten so much attention when “thousands of grieving black mothers in Chicago” don’t get the same attention — a point the Baltimore students also made, in relation to grieving parents in Baltimore.
Trump, seen as an ally of gun rights advocates, surprised some on Wednesday when he called for gun control legislation. During a meeting with lawmakers broadcast live, the Republican president spoke of keeping guns from those with mental illness, restricting gun sales for the youngest adults and extending background checks to cover sales at gun shows and over the internet.
Maryland lawmakers in the Maryland General Assembly are seeking to ban bump stocks, take guns from domestic abusers and create a "red flag" system to intervene when a gun owner's behavior is threatening but not criminal.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who has an A-minus rating from the NRA, said Wednesday he supported taking guns away from people identified as dangerous, and spending $180 million to strengthen security at schools, including by hiring armed school resource officers.
Maryland banned assault rifles after the 2012 shooting of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. State lawmakers this year are considering a ban on bump stocks, which turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons, among other measures. An NRA lobbyist told lawmakers Wednesday that the organization opposed any bans on firearms or firearm-related accessories.
The Baltimore students had nuanced opinions on many issues at the center of the national debate. They said there should be better background checks and more restrictions to keep guns out of the hands of those with violent tendencies or mental illness. They said people without training in firearms shouldn’t be able to buy them.
They also noted that much of the gun violence in Baltimore is committed by people who are not permitted to possess firearms, and questioned whether enhanced laws would halt the violence if police don’t also disrupt the black market for guns.
They mostly said they wanted guns gone, though – the AR-15 rifles used in Parkland and other mass shootings but also the handguns associated with most of the killings here.
O’Neal, a father whose young daughter goes to the high school’s daycare center, has two jobs, one at Amazon, and said he wants to stay out of trouble and make it out of Baltimore.
When you take somebody’s life, it’s not just the person who you kill that you’re hurting
Dajona Bass, student
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When he walks around the city, he said, he keeps his headphones on, but without sound. That way, he maintains a low profile but remains alert. Sometimes, he walks in the middle of the street to be more visible, he said. He always looks over his shoulder.
“It gets tiring,” he said.
The constant feelingof danger has made O’Neal think he needs a gun himself, for protection. He hasn’t gotten one.
Some of the other students said the same. If they wanted a gun, they said, they’d know where to get it.
They don’t understand why police seem oblivious to the city’s robust underground gun trade.
“If it’s easy for us to find it,” Bass said. “They trained to do what they do, so it shouldn’t be too hard for them to find it. ... I just wish they’d take guns away.”
“Make it harder for people to get access to them,” O’Neal said. “You just got to make it harder. I don’t know. Take the bootleg gun stores out the ’hood.”
Several students said people should be required to pass proficiency tests showing they know how to shoot before being allowed to buy guns.
“I want to see only certified, trained people have guns,” Jones said. “It should be harder for people on the street to get guns.”
Jones said his best friend was shot to death in Prince George’s County before he moved to Baltimore. He said “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and that shooters need to think about the consequences of their actions.
Fisher said “guns should be taken away” because “they’re not used for positive.”
Michaela Gray, an 18-year-old senior, called them “pointless.”
“Everybody should just put a gun down and make the community a better place to live,” she said.
Fleming said nobody but law enforcement and the military should have guns.
“I feel as though they should definitely keep guns away from civilians, period, regardless of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, because the right to bear arms has gotten a lot of people killed, shot,” he said. He said people with guns are “abusing the amendment. They’re abusing their rights.”
The students said police aren’t helping reduce gun violence. One suggested the Baltimore police don’t care about black people being shot in Baltimore. Another said police can’t be trusted.
Several said the police failure to solve more shootings and killings forces people to resort to street justice, which leads to retaliatory cycles of violence.
The Baltimore Police Department’s homicide clearance rate this year stands at about 64 percent. That’s better than in recent years, but it means more than a third of the killings in the city are going unsolved.
The Excel students are not confident change will come in Baltimore — at least as long as voices like theirs are ignored.
They’ve watched the attention being paid to the Parkland shooting and the student leaders who have emerged, and think it is deserved. But they believe all the killing in Baltimore, and everything students go through emotionally in dealing with it, also deserves national attention.
“People die in this city and a bunch of cities across the United States every day, and it all don’t make it on the news,” Jones said. “They might as well publicize everybody’s death, for real.”
“When you take somebody’s life, it’s not just the person who you kill that you’re hurting,” Bass said. “You’re hurting the family, and if they have children, the grandmothers, just everybody who’s connected to them, like those roots to that person. You’re not just hurting one person, you’re hurting a family, a village, a community.”