By Michele Hong, CFCC Interim Executive Director
Since 2005, CFCC has been operating a Truancy Court Program (TCP) in public schools in Baltimore City and several surrounding districts. Our program takes a holistic view of the many stressors on families that can lead to truancy and prevent students from thriving in school. In the past year, a dramatic increase in violence in our city has become a daily reality for students, and the impact this trend is having on students today will have long-term impact on our society.
Simply put: Our students are scared. They fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This school year began with the tragic death of a Baltimore City high school student. During the first week of school, a Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School (Mervo) student and football player was shot and killed in the school parking lot hours before he was to take to the field. A mere four months later, on January 4, five students from Edmondson-Westside High School were shot, one of them fatally. Two days later, two students from Benjamin Franklin High School were shot in an alley by their school. On February 14, a day typically celebrated with pronouncements of love, four teenagers were shot in different parts of Baltimore City. The following day, a 15-year-old girl from Mervo was shot while on site at one of our TCP schools, an elementary/middle school, while aftercare was still in session. Later that day, two more teenagers were shot in other parts of Baltimore City. On March 6, a 16-year-old student from Patterson High School was fatally shot in a park near his school at 2:00 in the afternoon. And most recently, on March 16, a student from Achievement Academy at Harbor City High School was fatally shot near a bus stop frequented by many students.
We know that the schools are working hard to keep students safe. In fact, some students report that school is the one place they feel safe. However, what happens outside the school walls has a major impact on students’ lives and academic experience.
In 2022, Baltimore City experienced 335 homicides. Notably, many of the victims and perpetrators were young adults. The city has surpassed 300 homicides each year for eight consecutive years. Sadly, 2023 is not looking any brighter. Even more telling than the number of homicides is the increasing number of young shooting victims, many near school grounds. In 2022, 84 shooting victims in Baltimore City were children 17 years or younger. As reported in The Baltimore Banner, “[t]wenty-three school-age children and young adults, ages 13 to 18, have been shot near a Baltimore City school during the school day this academic year.” And in 2023, at least six young people under the age of 18, have already been shot and killed; countless more have been wounded. It’s only March.
The TCP is currently operating in five Baltimore City public schools, and our students offer a window into how pervasive violence affects children and youth.. Five siblings at one of our elementary/middle schools walk to school with their mom. Because they fear walking by themselves, they sometimes skip school if their mother is unable to walk with them. “I am afraid a car might come up next to us and try to take me or my sisters” (5th Grader). School staff share these concerns. “Students and their parents are valid in their fear of violence. Our students often witness violence or walk past drug deals on their way to and from school” (School Guidance Counselor).
For our high school students, the violence can hit close to home. Many report witnessing fights or being in fights themselves at or near school. Some have been shot; others know students who have been shot or have had family members shot. Earlier this school year, a high school student told the TCP team that he had been grazed by a bullet during the preceding weekend. His father relocated the family to Virginia stating, “I don’t want my son to become a statistic.” Several students report feeling unsafe at school or riding the bus to and/or from school. One 17 year old reasons, “People always have weapons. Students who don’t even go to the school are let in the building.” When students hear of violence or shootings near their school, several admit to skipping school for fear of being shot. Several students admit to carrying weapons to school and/or outside of school for protection. For one 17 year old, the violence has become too much. Having already lost two close friends to gun violence, she no longer tries to get close to people. She fears the emotional trauma that she will endure if she loses yet another friend.
We asked students in the TCP program for suggestions on how to stem the violence in Baltimore. Most think the future looks bleak. A few offered advice. Even though all Baltimore City high schools have metal detectors, some students think security measures need to be improved. Too many weapons get through, and too many students from other schools are mistakenly let into school buildings. Students also feel that relationships with police need to improve, acknowledging that while some police are kind and respectful, others can become too aggressive when responding to typical adolescent behavior. Finally, students suggest that teachers, parents, and community members need to play a larger role to help students address conflict before it escalates into violence.
As a parent of two students who attend(ed) Baltimore City public schools, I know the heart-wrenching fear we feel when receiving a text from our child: “Mom, we’re on a lockdown because they think someone has a gun on campus. Do you know what’s going on?” And that incident was only one of several lockdowns my children experienced due to fears of a gun or even a bomb at or near school grounds. Thankfully, each time was resolved without anyone getting hurt. But we are the lucky ones. So many students across Baltimore City are not.
Much has been said in the media about the failing test scores in Baltimore City public schools. You may have seen the headline, “23 Baltimore schools have zero students proficient in math, per state test results.” Absent from the conversation is any acknowledgement of the trauma our students face every day, as they travel to and from school and on school grounds. Students need to feel safe before they can concentrate on learning. While we can all acknowledge the importance of passing scores on state assessments, let’s not lose sight of the bigger problem. We need to do more to protect our children. They need to feel safe at home, in their schools, and in their community, before they can thrive. When asked about all of the gun violence in Baltimore, a 17-year-old high school student responded, “It is normal.” But then she quickly corrected herself, “No–it is our normal. It shouldn’t be normal.” To save our kids, we need to work together to create a new normal.