The time is now for Baltimore to become a ‘trauma-responsive city’

A few months ago, a group of men pulled up to the parking lot of the O’Donnell Heights playground in a black car and fired 37 rounds, injuring four people. The shooting occurred shortly after two elementary schools let out for dismissal. When the gunfire erupted, chaos ensued. According to one witness, “It was like watching a hurricane of bullets.”

The next day, I spoke with students at Holabird Academy. An eighth grader described the terror she felt hearing the “pops,” knowing that her family was walking home. “My little brother is 3. He heard everything. He saw the man bleeding out on the pavement.” As she spoke her hand trembled.


There is a cruelly predictable rhythm to Baltimore’s violence. After a shooting, local media show up on the scene for a few hours. Elected officials and police promise to redouble safety efforts and catch the bad guys. The school system sends in a couple of counselors. Eventually, public attention wanes as gunfire erupts somewhere else. Communities are left to grieve alone.

If O’Donnell Heights were a middle-class neighborhood, every child would have access to therapeutic support to address the trauma they had suffered. But we live in Baltimore, where redlined black and brown communities endure shootings as a part of daily life, and where access to high quality mental health care in disinvested neighborhoods is as unavailable as fresh, affordable food.

After the shooting, the City Council’s Youth and Public Safety committees held a joint hearing. Bryonna, Jaionna and Damani from Frederick Douglass High School spoke powerfully about what it’s like to live in fear. They found temporary solace in their school, but even that was shattered when a gunman opened fire in the vestibule a few months ago. Their poise throughout their painful testimony underscored the grit and resilience that so many of Baltimore’s children possess.

Students from Frederick Douglass High School testify about youth violence at a Baltimore City Council hearing on the subject.

Their stories of the daily obstacles they face — from housing instability to incarcerated family members to neighborhood violence — are sadly familiar to most kids across our city.

According to data from The Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, 56% of Baltimore’s children have experienced one or more major traumatic events. Left unaddressed, each of these “adverse childhood experiences,” can have a devastating impact on health outcomes and lead to an increased risk of addiction, incarceration and other risky behaviors. Baltimore’s children are growing up in an epidemic of violence, yet our response has reliably prioritized policing at the expense of prevention.

The students ended their testimony with a call to action. A call for the adults in their lives to no longer ignore or exacerbate their pain. A call for teachers, administrators and legislators to provide the opportunities and resources they need to heal.

We should listen to our students. The time is now to transform Baltimore into a “trauma-responsive city” that prevents violence by treating its root causes. I am collaborating with a cross-sector coalition on a policy to equip all city agencies that engage children and families with the training, tools and resources to effectively respond to trauma. Our legislation would direct city agencies to rewrite policies and procedures with an eye toward reducing harm. We will convene a diverse work group whose mission is to promote healing. And finally, our Health Department will help train frontline staff to recognize and effectively respond to trauma. Today, I will introduce The Baltimore City Trauma Responsive Care Act at the City Council meeting.

Cities and states that have taken this approach have seen reductions in violent crime and staff burnout, improvements in mental health and academic outcomes. This strategy cannot pathologize our kids or their communities as a problem to be solved. Young people have had a leading voice in shaping the intervention. We will employ an asset-based, community healing approach. We must also acknowledge the role that racist public policies have played in shaping our hyper-segregated city. Violence and its consequences are felt disproportionately in communities of color. Responding effectively to trauma will not absolve us of our responsibility to work toward a more just and equitable Baltimore.

We have an opportunity to be a national leader in community-centered healing. We have some of the best public health resources in the world. We have a mayor who has consistently prioritized children. Most importantly, we have incredibly resilient kids who deserve far better than what they receive. Let’s not wait for another mass shooting in O’Donnell Heights or any other neighborhood to unite behind our children.

Zeke Cohen (zeke@zekecohen.com) represents Baltimore’s First District on the City Council.

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