The locker assigned to Jaime Zelaya, a 16-year-old student at D.C.'s Paul Public Charter School, who was killed by gunfire on Feb. 22 in his Brightwood Apartment. Classmates decorated the locker as a memorial. It includes his favorite snacks and references to his spots on the school's soccer and basketball teams.

The locker assigned to Jaime Zelaya, a 16-year-old student at D.C.'s Paul Public Charter School, who was killed by gunfire on Feb. 22 in his Brightwood Apartment. Classmates decorated the locker as a memorial. It includes his favorite snacks and references to his spots on the school's soccer and basketball teams.

As gun deaths in the District continue to rise, so does the number of victims in their teens or younger.

The District tallied 14 juvenile murders in 2019, the second consecutive year where the murder rate for young people reached double-digits. And the first few months of this year have been marked by the gun deaths of several young people, including a 13-year-old boy.

These murders cancel futures and devastate families. But they also afflict a community of young friends and classmates who are left to grieve and fear.

How are these young people coping? And what are the adults in their lives doing to support them?

Produced by Lauren Markoe

Guests

  • Nathan Leucking Social Worker, Anacostia High School; @nathanleucking
  • Tracy Wright CEO; Paul Public Charter School; @PaulPCS
  • Arykah Clark Student; Paul Public Charter School; CEO; @PaulPCS

Transcript

  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. A trend within D.C.'s trend of gun-related homicides is especially heartbreaking. The number of young people dying in the violence is spiking. Fourteen youths were killed last year and 13 the year before. That's about double, compared to previous years. Many children and teens are grieving and live in fear that a gun could instantly kill them or someone they love. Experts say they risk losing their sense of the preciousness of life and their hopes for the future.

  • 12:32:28

    KOJO NNAMDIHow are young people in the District responding to gun violence, and how are the adults in their lives trying to help them cope? Well, joining me in studio is Tracy Wright, the CEO of Paul Public Charter School in the District of Columbia. Tracy Wright, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:41

    TRACY WRIGHTThank you for having me.

  • 12:32:42

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Arykah Clark. She's a junior at Paul Public Charter School. Arykah, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:49

    ARYKAH CLARKThank you for having me.

  • 12:32:50

    NNAMDIAnd Nathan Leucking is a social worker at Anacostia High School. Nathan, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:55

    NATHAN LEUCKINGThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:32:55

    NNAMDITracy Wright, first of all, my condolences for the death of Jaime Zelaya. He was a 16-year-old student at your school who was killed at his apartment less than three weeks ago, with his best friend, 17-year-old Wilfredo Torres. And a little more than a week ago, 13-year-old Malachi Lukes, who attended your school until just a few months ago, was also killed by gunfire. Before we talk about those tragedies, tell us a bit about your school. Where is it, and who goes there?

  • 12:33:24

    WRIGHTSo, Paul Public Charter School is located at 5800 Eighth Street Northwest. We serve about 750 students who come to us across Washington, D.C. We are grades six through 12. We are one of the oldest charter management organizations in Washington, D.C., founded by Miss Cecile Middleton.

  • 12:33:49

    NNAMDIWhat's the racial and ethnic makeup of your school?

  • 12:33:52

    WRIGHTSo, approximately 40 percent of our students are Latino, and about 60 percent of our students are African-American.

  • 12:34:00

    NNAMDIHow did you first hear about Jaime's death, and what did you do before it was confirmed by the police?

  • 12:34:06

    WRIGHTSo, we first heard about the unfortunate passing of Jaime and Wilfredo on Saturday night, the actual evening that it took place. And we learned about it because we have students who are very close and tightly connected to each other, and they're also close and tightly connected to staff. And so, upon hearing about the situation, they reached out to staff members. And the staff members, of course, reached out to administration to include myself.

  • 12:34:34

    WRIGHTWhat did we do before we actually had the information confirmed? I mean, we prayed a lot. We hoped that it was an unfortunate, cruel rumor, not having had any confirmation from the Metropolitan Police Department. We were just clinging onto hope that it wasn't true. We were clinging onto hope that -- you know, the initial report said that there was one of the children who was still clinging on and hanging on for his life. So, we were hoping and praying that that child was going to be okay. And, you know, we were kind of preparing ourselves and bracing ourselves for the news that it may unfortunately be true, that we lost two of our children.

  • 12:35:19

    NNAMDIThat eventually did happen. The news did come. Tell us how your students are coping and what questions they're asking about the deaths of these young people.

  • 12:35:28

    WRIGHTIt was very difficult for our children. I will say that on the Monday when our students returned to school -- and they all came to school -- the sense of grief and loss was incredibly heavy. We were very fortunate and blessed to have not just the support of the amazing adults that work at Paul, but also DBH sent out about 12 to 15 social workers to help support our students. And so it was a very difficult week. And then the next week was also difficult, when we found out about Malachi.

  • 12:35:58

    WRIGHTI would say that now children are -- you know, they are squarely in the cycle, in the process of grieving. They are better. They are more focused, but it is not lost on us that they are still hurting. And so we are still making sure that we're making mental health services available for them, grief counseling available for them. And, as they say, that they need space and support to mourn the loss of their friend and their peer and their Paul family member, we're making sure that we give them that space.

  • 12:36:28

    NNAMDIKids can be very curious. How much detail did you share about Jaime and Malachi's death?

  • 12:36:34

    WRIGHTWell, the news is very explicit, and so we did not...

  • 12:36:38

    NNAMDICan't hide anything.

  • 12:36:39

    WRIGHTYeah, you can't hide anything. In fact, we were just talking in the waiting room, I was speaking with Arykah about an Instagram page that many of our students follow. It's called Murder Mayhem. And so, unfortunately, on this Instagram page, there's tons of details about the death of individuals in Washington, D.C. And so we actually did not share a ton of explicit details.

  • 12:37:02

    WRIGHTWhat we really focused on was the amazing, but short life that Jaime and Malachi lived, and really tried to focus our students on appreciating the huge contributions that they made to our life and our world in that short period of time and making sure that we honor them, moving forward.

  • 12:37:21

    NNAMDIArykah, Jaime was your friend. Malachi was your cousin. You've lost two young people in your life to gun violence in less than a month. First, how are you doing?

  • 12:37:30

    CLARKI'm doing better.

  • 12:37:32

    NNAMDIAnd who has helped you to cope?

  • 12:37:33

    CLARKMainly, my family has really been trying to, like, help me and stuff like that, trying to get through and make sure I'm okay with getting back to school and getting back to my everyday life because it's been hard. And also my therapist that works at Paul as well.

  • 12:37:49

    NNAMDIWell, let me put you through another hard part. Tell us a little bit about Jaime. What was he like?

  • 12:37:54

    CLARKJaime, he was a really great person. Like, he was one of those kids that's, like, always smiling, making jokes about something. Like, even like his coaches and his friends and his family and stuff like that knew that Jaime was basically like -- he's just a funny guy. He just laughed all the time. He was, like, one of those kids that was, like, never down. Like, he even made, like, the worst situations, like, funny and stuff like that when they probably shouldn't have been. But, yeah, that's basically how he was.

  • 12:38:21

    NNAMDITracy, would you like to add anything about Jaime?

  • 12:38:25

    WRIGHTSo, Paul is a microcosm of what we see in society, right. We have 40 percent of our students who are Latino, 60 percent of our students who are African-American. Our children come from 26 countries all over the world. We are truly an international environment. And the one thing that I, you know, love and that stood out about Jaime is that he really was able to bring groups and communities of children together within the school in a way that was super-mature and sophisticated.

  • 12:38:53

    WRIGHTSo, he was an active member of the soccer team, and he was also on the boys' basketball team.

  • 12:38:58

    NNAMDIAnd bilingual.

  • 12:38:58

    WRIGHTAnd he was bilingual.

  • 12:39:00

    NNAMDISo, he was Jaime and Jaime at the same time. (laugh)

  • 12:39:02

    WRIGHTThat's right. (laugh) And so he just really was a beautiful, brilliant soul and made everyone around him feel like they were special and important. He kept a smile on his face, and he worked very hard.

  • 12:39:17

    NNAMDIArykah, what about your cousin Malachi? What was he like?

  • 12:39:22

    CLARKMalachi was -- like, that was my baby. Like, that was my baby cousin. Like, we lived together and everything else. (laugh) Malachi was, like, very reserved for the most part but, like, especially if you get to know him and stuff, like, he was very sweet, like, a very sweet, gentle boy, momma's boy, everything. Like, he was just sweet and very compassionate and stuff like that and just very protective, especially me. I'm his older cousin. He was trying to protect me. I'm supposed to be watching out for you, but he be, like, watching out for me. And that's just like basically how that was. We had a really close relationship, especially him growing up and stuff like that.

  • 12:39:55

    NNAMDIHe was also very interested in theater, wasn't he?

  • 12:39:57

    CLARKYeah.

  • 12:39:59

    NNAMDIHe was active in theater. He was incredibly smart and talented. And it's my understanding that he was particularly good at math.

  • 12:40:10

    CLARKYeah, he was very intelligent.

  • 12:40:12

    NNAMDINathan, you've been a social worker at Anacostia High School for seven years. How prevalent is gun violence in the lives of your students?

  • 12:40:18

    LEUCKINGIt's so prevalent to the point where it's part of the fabric of their lives. And it's, like, routinely, at Anacostia High School, we'll lose a student -- one to two students a year by gun violence.

  • 12:40:32

    NNAMDIYou say that gun violence is a major reason why many of your students live in a constant state of heightened attention. What do you mean by that and how does it impact or interfere with their educations?

  • 12:40:43

    LEUCKINGYeah, so think about living in a environment in which you're at risk of gun violence on a day-to-day basis. You kind of develop an ability to be aware of your surroundings, to know how to read people, to know how to read a room, to know which ways to go to and from different places, to understand the dynamics within your community to the point where you can keep yourself safe and keep your family safe.

  • 12:41:11

    LEUCKINGAnd when you're asked to then come into school and sit down and maybe do fractions or take a test, it's hard to switch that focus from being constantly aware of everything that's going on around you and vigilant to being focused and calm to the point where you can engage in your schoolwork.

  • 12:41:33

    NNAMDIHow does the school approach educating students who live on high alert? What do you mean when you say Anacostia is, quoting here, "a trauma-informed school?"

  • 12:41:42

    LEUCKINGYeah. So, what we try to do, just out of necessity, and I think we've been very successful in this, is we integrate mental health into everything that we do. So, we found that it's a lot more effective to build mental health programming into the things that students already enjoy and to build it into the curriculum. So, for example, we have a music program that uses music therapy while the students can enjoy making rap or singing.

  • 12:42:11

    LEUCKINGWe have a visual arts class that integrates art therapy. And then we build a lot of mindfulness and movement-based therapies, mind-body therapies into our athletic department and into our dance. So, it's a way to bring, in addition to traditional talk therapy, which we offer. We've been able to partner with a lot of clinicians in the community that have specific skill sets that we're able to enrich our entire school environment.

  • 12:42:38

    NNAMDILet's go to the phones to an individual who identifies as Pastor Delonte. Pastor Delonte, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:45

    DELONTE GHOLSTONHi, Kojo. This is Pastor Delonte Gholston with Peace Walks D.C. We're a group of pastors and activists and organizers, and including young people, that engage in night walks in our community in Ward 7 and Ward 8 in the city. I just first want to just give my condolences in the loss of Jaime and the loss of Malachi. Our hearts go out to each of you, and our prayers are with you.

  • 12:43:21

    DELONTE GHOLSTONI actually an alum of Paul. I was there when Miss Middleton was there. And my nephew actually attended Paul up until two years ago. He was actually shot, as well, up on Georgia and Upshur Street. I won't give his name over the air, but it was actually his shooting that broke our family's heart and compelled a lot of clergy in our city to just start getting involved.

  • 12:43:50

    DELONTE GHOLSTONSo, I just wanted just to say that each of us has a role to play, and that there are folks in Ward 1 and in Ward 4, a couple of pastors -- Pastor Joe Daniels, for example, at Emory United Methodist Church, who are interested -- which isn't far from Paul, who are interested in doing peace walks in the community. I know Pastor Dexter Nutall at New Bethel Baptist Church, which is right in Shaw, close to where young brother Malachi was shot. I know that there are churches that are in these communities that are interested in doing peace walks and supporting neighborhood safety and engagement , supporting a cure, to cure violence teens.

  • 12:44:35

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 12:44:35

    GHOLSTONAnd providing prayer and healing circles for families that are in need.

  • 12:44:38

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Nathan, you said it became clear to you early on in your time at Anacostia High that sitting down and asking a teenager to explore with you their feelings about the violence in their lives just was not going to work. Why not?

  • 12:44:53

    LEUCKINGI think there's a lot of stigma and resistance to traditional therapy services. And, unfortunately, the way that it's been structured in our schools is that, a lot of times, you see a therapist if you have behavior problems, if you get in fights. It's perceived as a punishment. And there's just a severe lack of trust, a lot of times, in these communities. So, you have to figure out creative ways to bridge that.

  • 12:45:17

    LEUCKINGPart of the thing that I do at Anacostia is I have a music therapy program. So, you basically conduct an expressive therapy session while recording a song with them. So, it brings down the barriers, because it's something that they enjoy, that they like doing, they don't necessarily see as therapeutic. And, you know, it's very popular, and they keep coming back. And then, at the end of the session, they have something positive that they can show from it.

  • 12:45:44

    NNAMDISpeaking of that, we have a clip written and recorded by Emory, an Anacostia High School student who lost a cousin and three friends to gun violence. It's called "Real Me." And Emory dedicates it, these are his words, quoting, "to everyone who lives in the struggle and lost people like I did."

  • 12:47:02

    NNAMDIThat was Emory, in the Anacostia High School recording studio. Nathan, you say a session in the studio is not only helpful for kids who have been on the receiving end of violence, but for those who have been violent themselves. How so?

  • 12:47:14

    LEUCKINGYeah, it's hard to -- and I was listening to the police chiefs talking about this before, of categorizing. You know, you have your perpetrators and you have your victims. A lot of times, the line is blurred, and it's very difficult to differentiate, especially in that setting. You know, hurt people hurt people. And a lot of the times the people who perpetrate gun violence have been victims in some way, shape or form.

  • 12:47:40

    LEUCKINGAnd what I believe the studio does -- and rap music, in general -- is it allows for an outlet of that. So, students who might not necessarily be particularly good at sports or school or other things, but are good in the street and can navigate the street well and have been through those experiences, are given an opportunity to express that in a medium that is accepting of that. And so, you know, it becomes a place to process all things, and not just grief or loss.

  • 12:48:08

    NNAMDIMusic is one way young people grapple with gun violence. Writing is another. We wanted to tell listeners about a writing contest for D.C. middle schoolers sponsored by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. He invites them to write about their experience with gun violence and to suggest ways to stop it. The deadline is this Friday, and you can learn more about it at our website, kojoshow.org, or OAG.DC.gov. That's the attorney general's website. Nathan, you have said that for the kids you serve, it would be better if they could have all decent, affordable housing than a million more social workers. What do you mean by that?

  • 12:48:43

    LEUCKINGYeah. So, I think, you know, mental health is obviously -- it's a real thing. You know, it's my profession, and I believe in it. But I feel like a lot of the stuff that, as a school therapist, I'm asked to deal with are the negative ramifications of generational poverty and, you know, systemic lack of investment in our communities.

  • 12:49:01

    LEUCKINGAnd if we, as a city, radically rethought and, you know, diverted resources on a massive scale to these communities, it would do way more for their mental health to have clean, habitable housing, to have consistent, you know, healthcare options, to have schools that don't continually close down, to have all this consistency. It'll do way more for their mental health than I could ever do, you know. And it would be massive, basically, programmatic and systemic change that we need.

  • 12:49:40

    NNAMDIIndeed. Tracy Wright, you have spoken also about how structure is essential for kids, but especially those who are growing up in fear of violence. How do you try to provide that at your school?

  • 12:49:53

    WRIGHTSo, structure is really important, especially when you talk about having a trauma-informed environment. One of the things that combats trauma most is consistency. And so, at Paul, from having high expectations for how our students show up every day, making sure that, you know, we're consistent in terms of our schedule, consistent in terms of our approach, making sure our students move with a sense of urgency through the hallways and stay focused on the main thing, which is making sure that they're getting a high-quality education so that they have choice and options when they leave. We work really hard to make sure that we create an environment that reflects that every single day.

  • 12:50:30

    NNAMDIArykah, tell us a bit about your own life at Paul Public Charter School. What are you involved in there?

  • 12:50:36

    CLARKCurrently, at Paul, I'm a cheer leader, mainly, and I focus on academics mainly because I'm going to college. So that's really what I do there. And I'm a good friend. I'm close to most of my teachers.

  • 12:50:50

    NNAMDIWhat do you intend to study when you go to college?

  • 12:50:53

    CLARKPsychology.

  • 12:50:54

    NNAMDIAnd what do you want to do with that education/

  • 12:50:56

    CLARKI want to become a behavioral analyst.

  • 12:50:59

    NNAMDITell us about safety. Where do you feel safe, and is there any place you do not feel safe?

  • 12:51:05

    CLARKI feel safe in my school building and when I'm at home, mainly, because just, like, that's, like, my domain. I'm there most of my days and things like that. The places I don't feel safe is, like, kind of, like, up the street from my school where Jaime was murdered and stuff like that, because I just get an eerie feeling going that way. It's just like I always have to, like, look over my shoulder a little bit more now after that happened.

  • 12:51:32

    NNAMDINathan Leucking, what about young people who are not in school, who drop out, have very poor attendance or have graduated? Is there any support available to them?

  • 12:51:41

    LEUCKINGThere is, but it's not as readily available. Like, we understand that a lot of the resources that kids receive come from their school. And I think, you know, Dr. Wright will attest to that, as well. And the consistency that comes from being in school every day provides a lot of structure and safety. So, when they leave there's not as much for them to gravitate towards.

  • 12:52:04

    LEUCKINGAnd part of how we try to address that at Anacostia is by offering, like for example, a lot of alumni come back to use the studio still. So, in addition to seeing students throughout the day, I'll have afterschool hours so that alumni can come back and still engage in that program, get that healing, but also be off the street during a very critical time.

  • 12:52:28

    NNAMDIWe're coming close to an end but I wanted to end with another clip from an Anacostia student. This is "Real Deal" by a young woman named Isis who challenged herself to capture her reality in lyrics and music, but without using any profanities.

  • 12:53:33

    NNAMDIArykah, you have also talked about how music helps you get through hard times. How does it help, and more importantly, what have you been listening to lately?

  • 12:53:41

    CLARKMusic has just been, like, a really great outlet for me, especially when I was younger, because, like, I could sing a little bit. So, like, I like music and stuff like that. I've been listening to Jhene Aiko, and I was like -- Jhene Aiko and Jaiko, and I was looking up Jhene Aiko music and stuff like that. And I watched an interview of hers. She was speaking about how, in her music, she intentionally uses sound therapy and things like that with different instruments. So, I was like, it's just so therapeutic. It's just funny how, like, that was the intentional thing for listeners.

  • 12:54:16

    NNAMDIOkay. I've taken notes. Thank you very much. (laugh) Arykah Clark is a junior at Paul Public Charter School. Tracy Wright is the CEO of Paul Public Charter School in the District. And Nathan Leucking is a social worker at Anacostia High School. Thank you all for joining us. This segment about youth coping with gun violence was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about causes and possible solutions to gun violence was produced by Cydney Grannan.

  • 12:54:39

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, AAA has called D.C.'s traffic enforcement practices -- particularly the use of traffic cameras -- predatory. Do you think that's the case? Plus, a Marine master sergeant is the first woman to lead the President's Marine Band as assistance drum major. We'll hear how she continues to break barriers. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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