RIP Trey: the phrase is written on the sleeves of a white sweatshirt with photos of a young black man printed on the front. Its wearer speaks to a circle of friends in the halls during transition, a few of them wearing similar articles of clothing, before they head off to their next classes. It’s the only time these students are noticed, the only time the violence that plagues many at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Dunbar) is noticed.
In Las Vegas, mourning friends and family members sign their names on a poster that reads “Rest in Heaven,” a remembrance of the many lives of students lost in the north side’s gun violence. Grim candlelight vigils raise fears about the lack of safety in communities of color, leaving every teen asking a single, unanswered question: Will I live past my eighteenth birthday?
In the past few years, Dunbar and its city, Lexington, Kentucky, have become acutely aware of the horrors of gun violence. Senseless shootings, such as that of Trinity Gay, have devastated the local community. Gay was a student-athlete at Lafayette High School who maintained friendships throughout the district, but her life was cut tragically short when she was caught in the middle of a shootout. Lexington cried out in anguish and frustration in the wake of her death, prompting a series of movements against gun violence.
For the next two months, impromptu memorials sprang up around her school as students struggled to cope with their grief. The fence of the track field was covered with ribbons, tied shoes, and balloons. Within the school, photos of Trinity with notes written on them were taped to the walls. Dunbar’s students coped by holding a “We Are The Change” rally to discuss gun violence, where they invited local nonprofit workers and those directly affected by other city shootings. Trinity’s father created the Trinity Gay Foundation to provide mentorship programs to struggling teens and to carry on Trinity’s legacy of leadership. Meanwhile, three of her friends co-authored a paper with their teacher discussing the dismissal of gun violence in Lexington and presented at national conferences.
Other events such as multiple smuggled firearms on school campuses and a series of shooting threats, including at Dunbar itself, have fostered a looming fear that the next school shooting will spill Lexingtonian blood. Dunbar has reacted in kind, introducing metal detectors and new safety procedures, seemingly without acknowledging that the school does not exist in a vacuum. Even as Lexington’s violence rate grows, its impact on Dunbar’s students has been largely ignored, with a greater emphasis placed on physical security measures than bolstering mental health resources.
“It happened all in front of me. I didn’t know how to react. The car just drove up to my neighbor and shot him to the ground.”
The crisis parallels that occurring in Las Vegas, Nevada, where community violence continues to traumatize students, even as the overall state of education improves. The Nevada Department of Education reports that nearly 2% of students of color experience violence every year, and frequent gun violence in majority-minority neighborhoods is completely disregarded. In fact, a 2016 shooting in Northeast Las Vegas witnessed by an immigrant student from the Coral Academy of Science was entirely ignored by the public. As police blocked the house for further investigation, a visibly-shaken, young observer remarked, “it happened all in front of me. I didn’t know how to react. The car just drove up to my neighbor and shot him to the ground.”
Just a few days ago, a black teenager named LaMadre Harris was shot dead in a parking lot in North Las Vegas over an argument about a girl. His eighteen-year-old sister, a witness to the murder, gave little comment beyond stating that she was “traumatized for life” and at a loss for words, but the grief in her eyes was enough. His mother, Sydney Harris, lamented, “you can’t describe my pain. Someone took my child away from me. It wasn’t a fight or a gun war; it was over a girl.”
Ongoing searches for LaMadre’s murderer leave many Vegas residents feeling helpless at the perceived randomness of recent deaths. “I don’t know what will happen in the future. I’m scared that someone will just run up and shoot my babies,” mentioned a concerned resident of the north side. The issue is compounded by the recent spike in firearms in Vegas’ communities of color, heavily impacting the students who call those communities home. The growing violence is reflected in Vegas’ Clark County School District, which filed 17 incidents of smuggled firearms and shooting threats this academic year.
The trauma and fear caused by this pervasive violence are not forgotten when a student steps onto school grounds. In schools like Legacy High School, where LaMadre studied, students voiced that the emotional baggage carried after his passing lead to academic struggles, a fact mirrored by a study done by the University of Southern California. The drop in grades stems from a combination of factors, including less sleep, mental health problems, and a tendency to behave disruptively after a traumatic event that makes focusing on academics a challenge.
The emotional changes students undergo are more noticeable. Levels of depression and anxiety increase and the Alliance for Excellent Education reports that students witnessing trauma may show ‘fight or flight’ or detachment behaviors. Lafayette student Shermane Cowans explains that “all this death is constantly happening…there’s deaths every month. Every month someone’s dying,” and the violence everyone experiences is normalized. Her peer puts it bluntly: “when you say someone got shot, they’re not really surprised.”
Although speaking with an adult has been shown to minimize several of the painful effects associated with community violence, many students voice concerns about sharing their trauma with school counselors. A Lexington student who regularly experiences gun violence explained that she rarely speaks to her family and friends about it, let alone a counselor, someone completely unfamiliar to her. Budget cuts in both cities have led to fewer mental health professionals, and those remaining are stretched too thin, rendering them unable to build personal relationships with every student in the school.
At Dunbar, for example, there is one mental health professional for every 460 students, and although counselor Kelly Krusich explains that the school has tried to make counselor access easier, it is difficult to convince students to speak up about the pain they face.
Krusich laments, “we can’t force kids to talk to us about their issues, whether it’s personal or community, and even if there is a student who wants to see me who lives in a violent section of town and [worries] about it, they may not feel comfortable sharing.”
Instead of waiting for students to come to counselors, Dunbar relies on teachers and students to report those who they see struggling, a process which has been fairly successful. Just two months ago, a sophomore reported a student threatening to open fire on the school or commit suicide through an online tipline, called STOP. On top of that, the school provides information about suicide, depression, and harassment during fall presentations, but community violence is never directly addressed.
In the event of the passing of a Dunbar student, the school calls in a district crisis intervention team and provides grief counseling for both students and teachers. But as a counselor at Lafayette High School explained, “there’s all this hurt going on in these families, and they don’t want to talk about it,” leading to minimal use of the crisis response system. A grieving student said that she avoided the grief counselors after the passing of her friend because she “knew they were just going to say, ‘it’ll all be okay.’”
In the event that a student from a different school passes away, Krusich explains that it’s rarely addressed. Of course, this is understandable, but Dr. McLaughlin-Jones of Lafayette High School points out that schools are not isolated communities. “The students in [Lexington] change feeder systems regularly, districting boundaries run through neighborhoods, and magnet programming provides a larger vantage than just our own schools,” she says, before alluding to Lafayette High School’s lack of response to the death of a popular Dunbar student, explaining that “many students…were thrown into grief by this well-liked student’s passing, but [their] grief was overlooked because it happened at Dunbar.”
Fellow counselor Melissa Long explained that Dunbar doesn’t have “a preventative policy because as soon as something happens, [they] contact the crisis response person at the central office” for assistance.
Coral Academy of Science has introduced similar counseling procedures, but it has also provided more resources and opened the school to conversations about violence. Teachers who are willing to discuss these issues paste a lighthouse picture on their door which indicates a safe space, where students can confidentially talk about any violence or mental health problems, allowing students to reach out to an adult ally.
The movement comes with a youth-led discussion of mental health and community violence. Alex Carlone, a teacher at Coral Academy of Science encouraged a group of student activists to create a discussion group, saying that “a youth-led discussion can help students, as they can discuss mental health with students their age by hearing different stories and helping each other out.”
Ultimately, the difficulty in addressing this issue comes from its roots: the community. Dunbar’s Long stated it plainly: “it’s hard to help with something that is a community issue.” Regardless of what supports faculty creates in schools, it’s impossible to solve greater sources of the issue, like access to weapons and gang activity, from within the school system. A counselor from Coral Academy of Science Las Vegas explained that even with frequent student meetings, she cannot monitor behavior at home, and some students cannot afford a mental health therapist that counselors recommend.
“We don’t know what our kids are going through in the neighborhoods, unless we see something on the news, or unless they tell us. It’s hard to help with something that is a community issue,” says Long.
However, schools can mitigate the negative impacts this violence causes by creating an open and welcoming environment for all students, as well as more resources to cope with gun violence.
Introducing a faculty that reflects the racial composition of the student body would create a greater sense of familiarity for minority students, who are statistically more likely to face community violence. Kentucky, a state which has nearly ¼ non-white students, the teacher body is 94.5% white. Las Vegas is even more unequal, with only a 26.2% of the students being white, but 72.9% of the teachers. Hiring a diverse teacher body ensures that students feel more comfortable discussing the struggles they face in their day-to-day lives, as well as fostering better teacher-student relationships, according to the University of Las Vegas, Nevada.
Increasing the number of counselors available to students allows for better personal relationships with counselors, making students feel more comfortable and more likely to discuss the community violence they face. Currently, students from the Las Vegas area report that counselors student simply “brush students away” when students approach them with a concern that happened, as they struggle to help all students that come to them.
With more counselors comes a need to expand youth-led discussion. Coral Academy’s approach has shown great progress. By allowing students to connect over shared difficulties, students are better able to heal and funnel their energy into thinking of and advocating for localized solutions to community violence.
Most importantly, schools must become proactive about addressing violence, teaching students how to address it and its effects from a young age. Currently, Nevada Youth Legislator Colyn Abron is presenting a bill to mandate the teaching of symptoms of poor mental health, which would share information about coping techniques and resources students can access, such as counselors. “We don’t recognize the full spectrum of health by excluding mental health education. It has left many students undocumented, undiagnosed, and unaddressed. I know if I would have understood the general basics of mental health warning signs and symptoms, I would have reached out for help before attempting to end my life.”
The two cities are working to resolve their similar battles with gun violence in communities of color, but the problem is a national one that can only be resolved through increased mental health education, resources, and professionals. This proactivity, rather than current reactivity, is the only way to ensure that deaths of LaMadre, Trey, and other students of color are the last ones left unnoticed, the only way to ensure their friends are given the resources to grieve healthily.