At the funeral for 16-year-old Thomas Johnson Jr., a staff mentor from his Northeast Baltimore high school walked the pews of Ebenezer Baptist Church, talking to as many of his classmates as possible.
His message, Reginald F. Lewis principal Janine Patterson said, was simple: “We expect all of them to come back to school and to graduate.”
The same message was conveyed to students during the last days of school in June, Patterson said, and will be shared once more when classes resume Tuesday — this time with backup from school counselors, after Johnson was shot to death early last month.
“We just want to make sure they are comfortable coming back without Thomas,” Patterson said. “Our goal is to make sure they understand the opportunities that education can provide them.”
After another summer of historic gun violence in the city, school officials are preparing for an emotional return on Tuesday, when empty seats will underscore a grim reality: Some students are now dead, some are recovering from gunshot wounds, and some are sitting in jail, accused of taking part in the mayhem.
It’s the case nearly every year in Baltimore. Eleven juveniles have been killed this year, up from nine at the same point last year and down from 16 in 2015. Twenty-five juveniles have been shot and wounded this year.
The Department of Juvenile Services has projected 2,219 juvenile arrests for this year. That would be down from 2,490 in 2016. But police have said more juveniles are being arrested for violent crimes.
The pace of killing in Baltimore has overwhelmed students, teachers and others, officials say. Three boys were killed last month alone, Johnson among them, and four teens were shot in the last week. A 17-year-old is charged with attempted murder in a triple shooting, and several teens have been arrested with handguns in recent weeks.
Mental health professionals will visit at Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy in West Baltimore Tuesday to counsel students following the deaths of two 15-year-old students in separate shootings last month. Counselors also will be at Calverton Middle School, where one of the boys attended classes last year. They’ll also be on hand at Excel Academy, where students who lost five schoolmates to gunfire last year will mourn the death of a sixth, Rashad Parks, 19, who was killed over the summer.
Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises, who plans to visit Excel on Tuesday, said recently she would have preferred to have students back in school before Labor Day, in part out of concern the additional week off provided more opportunity for students to be “recruited into or victims of violence.”
“A lot of our kids are not going to the shore,” Santelises said. “They’re not packing up and going for a final trip to Pennsylvania with the family. They are waiting. … For particular kids, it’s life or death.”
Santelises’ concerns are shared by other leaders in the city, who say that youth violence is a top priority that must be tackled from multiple angles.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, has called for new crime prevention measures and metrics-tracking related to city youths. He said kids need opportunities to thrive, but also need to be surrounded by intense wrap-around services whenever they commit crimes.
“We know the reason why, in Baltimore, they are called the ‘stick-up boys,’” he said. “It’s because they have always been boys, not men. That’s not a new phenomenon. But we used to do, and we could be doing again, a better job dealing with it. We need to have a focus on the most likely juvenile victims and suspects and their entire families, because it’s a cycle.”
Drew Vetter, the new director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said “increasing coordination” between agencies around youth violence is “a high priority.”
Vetter said he believes “very strongly that we need to identify the population of juveniles who are most at risk for violence, and the communities that are most impacted, and design any approaches or new programs around those heavily impacted neighborhoods and those specific kids.”
He said he has had conversations with state Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed about how to do so.
The department said in a statement that it participates in a slew of programs for juveniles in the city. It acknowledged the defunding of a once-popular program — Operation Safe Kids — that operated in partnership with Vetter’s office, and which Scott lamented, but said it has “implemented a better system of accountability and improved management of supervision practices” in the city.
Abed said in a statement that he wants city schools to introduce later start times, which he said would be an “effective approach to address juvenile crime” because it would mean “students will be in school and engaged in positive academic activities for most of the afternoon.”
Gavin Patashnick, chief of the juvenile division of the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, said he is ready to re-engage with Vetter’s office to “really try to leverage as many services as we can for youth so that on one hand, we can hold them accountable, and on the other hand, we can get them all the wraparound services that they really need.”
Patashnick said some youths are repeat offenders, have “been through the system multiple times,” and have spurned job training, youth employment and other diversion programs. He said the goal of his office is to intervene in the lives of youths before they reach that point — such as after their first misdemeanor offense.
“Kids don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to go carjack somebody,’” he said. “Often what we see is that there is a whole progression of these smaller cases, misdemeanors.”
His office is also looking to identify adults who recruit juveniles and convince them to commit crimes on their behalf — a big problem in Baltimore, he said.
Patterson, Johnson’s principal, said the death of a single peer can serve as a devastating de-motivator for students, who sometimes view such events as harbingers of their own demise.
“Especially with African-American males, a lot of them don’t think they have much longer to live,” Patterson said. “It’s hard, because we see their potential, even sometimes when they don’t see their potential.”
She is eager to see them — including Johnson’s brother, a rising sophomore — back in school, where she said her staff has readied a spectrum of services and mentoring opportunities to support them.
Shatia Barnes, Johnson’s mother, said he missed too many classes last year to pass his freshman courses, but he’d promised her he was going to take high school more seriously this year.
“He was excited to learn,” said Barnes, a nursing assistant who lives in Belair-Edison. “He always wanted to drive my car.
“He was going to get his grades up to drive.”
Johnson was shot in the 4100 block of Chesterfield Ave. shortly before 1 a.m. on Aug. 11. As he lay dying, police said, he refused to provide officers with information about who shot him.
His mother said she heard he was screaming his address instead, so she would be notified. She didn’t learn he had been shot until the next morning.
Barnes, who Patterson described as an engaged and involved mother, said she does not know why her son was killed. She said he was not involved in drug dealing or other criminal activity, and was focused on basketball. He still watched cartoons until recently.
In a picture hanging on her wall from just a couple of years ago, he is still a middle-school graduate, a boy in blue cotton shorts and a white button down shirt wearing a small smile.
Now she gets up at 5:30 a.m. to go to work and walks downstairs in mourning. It was the time of day she shared with her son, who would greet her from the couch, where he would fall asleep watching television.
Now he’s not there, and all she can think of is the night of his death, or his funeral.
“It’s going to be hard for me for the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s been three weeks. It’s been no change. It still feels like the same day. Every day is August 11 for me.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.