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Baltimore’s children need safe passage throughout the year, not just on the first day of school

Like most people who have been following the news lately, I am outraged at the carnage piling up in Baltimore with daily reports of multiple shootings. Seven men were shot Saturday; two more Sunday. Even Labor Day was no holiday for the mayhem: eight shot in various reported incidents, two dead.

And in the midst of this, we welcome children back to schools like Northwood Elementary, which is near the area where three people were shot Monday. We shut off part of our brains to focus on bright colors, festive play, laughter and learning in the la-la land of imagined normality. But for too many children the bright colors of crime scene tape are reality; school time is a few hours’ break in the chaos they navigate in some of our neighborhoods.

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Taylor Hayes didn’t make it to school. As a 7 year old last year, she was killed in the back seat of a Honda Accord, while a male passenger traded fire with a guy in a Mercedes like they were on horses in the 19th century “Wild, Wild West.” A couple of weeks ago, 30-year-old Keon Gray was convicted of murder for killing Taylor. Keon Gray claims that oldest of defenses: Some other guy did it. Whoever the shooter was, my question is this: What possesses anyone to fire guns on a city street like desperados on the prairie?

Relatives and friends of the family of 7 year old Taylor Hayes, who was killed last summer, attend a Peace Walk in her honor in the Edmondson Village neighborhood. Here, they walk up Edmondson Avenue as Taylor's mother, Shanika Robinson, left, helps carry a banner.
Relatives and friends of the family of 7 year old Taylor Hayes, who was killed last summer, attend a Peace Walk in her honor in the Edmondson Village neighborhood. Here, they walk up Edmondson Avenue as Taylor's mother, Shanika Robinson, left, helps carry a banner. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

At least 13 children under the age of 18 have been homicide victims so far this year. In 2018, there were 15 child homicide victims; in 2017, 12; in 2016, 15. In 2015 — the year of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, an uprising in the streets and an explosion of violent crime — 22 children under 18 were killed. In these years many more sustained physical wounds, including a 15 year old and a 17 year old shot Saturday. Even more have suffered emotional wounds. Baltimore has tens of thousands of traumatized people, including children, trying to make it through the day. Every day.

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Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harris and Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises chat during a tour at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy on the first day of the school year.
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harris and Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises chat during a tour at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy on the first day of the school year. (Sun Staff/Baltimore Sun)

But we welcome them back to school, some of them decrepit and resembling the prisons that many of even the most bright-eyed and eager children will someday grace.

“To be honest with you, I wouldn’t send my kids to some of these schools, with no drinking water and no air conditioning in summer, no heat in winter and no recreation, ” Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young told me Tuesday morning as he walked through several blocks in Sandtown-Winchester greeting children on the first day of school. The mayor makes certain to add the schools are the state’s responsibility.

The Baltimore school system is taking steps to make drinking from school water fountains safe again a decade after lead contamination prompted officials to ban students from using them. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Outside the new Sandtown-Winchester Achievement Academy, a merger of the old Pinderhughes and Gilmor schools, volunteers from the Heart of America Foundation were among the first-day greeters. Starting Sept. 9, they and volunteers from Under Armour will be back to give the school a makeover, creating more inspiring learning environments with everything from fresh paint to landscaping.

To create a path for children to get to schools like this one, volunteers like Pastor Derrick Dewitt, president of Clergy United for the Transformation of Sandtown (CUTS), were out with colorful signs affixed to light poles and footprints painted on sidewalks leading from all directions to the school at 701 Gold St. Their goal, he said, was “making sure kids are unencumbered from wherever they are coming all the way to the school.”

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“They know this is a safe passage,” he said.

What children witness on their way to school was on the mind of Darlene Cain as she joined the mayor in Sandtown-Winchester. “We want them to know that they still can make it through all that they’ve been through. They can still succeed,” said Ms. Cain, a leader in the anti-violence advocacy group Mothers on the Move.

Recruiting volunteers for a splashy first day activity or a corporate-sponsored school makeover is one thing. Sustaining participation is another. More typically, we seem to give up on the children who don’t develop super powers that make them impervious to all the harm that comes at them before they reach 18. It’s so much easier to blame them when they can’t turn trials into triumph.

Dawnta Harris, 17, of Baltimore.
Dawnta Harris, 17, of Baltimore.

A case in point is Dawnta Harris, just 17 years old, who was sentenced to life two weeks ago for killing a police officer, probably unintentionally, while trying to get away from a crime scene in a stolen Jeep Wrangler. He was a troubled kid whose mother had unsuccessfully sought help for him. His exile to the state prison system will hide society’s failings from public view.

That first-day of school spirit needs to be bottled and shared across Baltimore throughout the year. Every child needs all the time what the clergy, the Mothers on the Move and the mayor provided for a single day: safe passage.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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