Editor's Note: This article is the first in a series entitled "Education Voices" by Oakland Local, in partnership with East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC). The series was produced to shed light on the challenges Oakland kids face in maintaining themselves in the midst of ever-present violence. The stories will be published over the next several days, and can be viewed here.
Shots were fired through the walls of Castlemont High School by a drive-by shooter in April, causing students to dive under their desks for safety, and school administrators to order a lockdown. A few weeks later, Castlemont students mourned the Sunday night murder of a beloved classmate, Olajuwon Clayborn, who was shot down in front of his home in East Oakland. Across town that same night, 19-year-old Darvel McGillberry, popular at his former McClymonds High School, was shot and killed.
In “Deep East,” at Brookfield Elementary School, three adults have been held up at gunpoint outside the school in recent months: a parent, a school custodian and the husband of a teacher. “We work in a war zone,” said first grade teacher Tammie Adams, who no longer wears her wedding ring to school to avoid being a robbery target.
At Alliance Academy Middle School on 98th Avenue, the violence is no longer just outside the school. Fights in classrooms and school hallways have become a regular occurrence this spring, teachers and students say. A punching and shoving fight between a substitute teacher and a student was caught on video by a fellow student, whose parents gave the video to KPIX.
As violence has escalated in Oakland over the past year, marked by a near-record 131 homicides for 2012 and 43 so far this year, the trouble is lapping up to the very doors of its schools.
Kids come to school traumatized, sometimes seeking safety inside the school, sometimes acting out all the stress they experience from witnessing violence.
“They are reflecting what they see outside,” said 8th-grade student Brittany Harper when asked what she thinks might be causing the fights at Alliance Academy Middle School, which shares a campus with her school, Elmhurst Community Preparatory School. The 98th Avenue school building is in the midst of one of Oakland’s most violent neighborhoods, according to Oakland Police Department crime statistics, as are Castlemont High and Brookfield.
In April, the zones north from 98th Avenue to about 73rd Avenue and between International and MacArthur Boulevards had the most crime of anywhere in the city, according to police records.
Throughout the city in April, 328 gunshot incidents were reported by individuals or recorded by the city’s Shot Spotter, according to the City’s Shot Spotter Report. Year-to-date by June 9, the city saw 481 assaults with a firearms and 43 murders, according to the most recent City of Oakland Weekly Crime Report.
“A lot of people I go to school with know people who’ve been killed and it affects them,” said Marisa Jolivette, who attends San Lorenzo High School, south of Oakland’s highest-crime area, but still a high crime area in itself. She spends each afternoon at the East Oakland Youth Development Center at 82nd Avenue and International. “Socially, they don’t want to talk about it, or their anger builds up and they want to get revenge.” She knew Clayborn, the Castlemont High School basketball star, and many of his friends.
“I’ve lost a couple of friends due to gun violence,” she continued. “One of them that affects me a lot was I had a friend who went to my school, he graduated two years ago, and he lived on East 14th and he was playing a dice game one day with some boys. I didn’t find out he got killed until I got to school,” she said. Shock is her first reaction, she said, the emotions come later.
“It didn’t hit me emotionally until I got to the funeral and I saw his mom cry. But if affects me mentally, because it’s hard to trust people now. Trusting my surroundings or who I tell stuff to or who I’m hanging out with, ’cause you never know,” she said.
Jordan Williams, 16, carries a calm and confident expression under his eyeglasses. But he lives on Seminary Avenue in the midst of the high gun crime area identified by Shot Spotter, and he said he is constantly aware of what could happen.
“Nothing has really been going on that much, but it’s still like in the back of my head, and everyone else’s head that, you know, anything could happen and that you should be prepared at all times,” he said.
Inside most schools, kids are safe. The Oakland Unified School District has not reported any incidents of gun violence there. Kids in the toughest neighborhoods consider school their safe haven, teachers say.
“When tragedy happens in the community, our kids run here,” said middle school teacher I’Asha Warfield, whose Frick Middle School is on the northern edge of that zone, on 64th Avenue. “With our students in particular, what makes life challenging is they are still dealing with puberty, with boy and girl crushes, with pimples, and simultaneously they are dealing with seeing an enormous amount of violence,” she said.
But while gun violence isn’t present in the schools, the psychological toll and sheer trauma of what’s happening on the streets in several Oakland neighborhoods is affecting students in numerous ways. On a basic level, it affects their ability to study.
Hattie Tate, OUSD’s department administrator for the Full Service Community Partnership program, said children and youth need some basic essentials in place to be able to learn. “The first thing a child needs to be able to learn is to feel safe,” said Tate, describing a philosophy that has fueled her work in OUSD and is the subject of her doctoral dissertation.
In neighborhoods where gunshots can be heard most nights and pimps lure or kidnap adolescents as they walk to school, some kids just do not feel safe, she said. That’s why she has been an advocate of teachers and administrators nurturing an atmosphere of safe haven in their schools.
Asked what the three biggest challenges facing Oakland schools are, outgoing Superintendent of Schools Tony Smith said, “Community violence, community violence and community violence,” citing it as all three.
“Schools are the very safest places in Oakland now, but the repercussions of violence on kids’ lives are much bigger than the district,” can handle on its own, Smith said.
Oakland Unified’s new strategic direction, begun a few years ago to create Full Service Community Schools, is partly in response to violence. Those schools with community centers offer counseling, after-school activities, health professionals and food.
“It’s been our focus. We’ve struggled for a long time to make schools safe havens,” said district spokesman Troy Flint. “A lot of the Community Schools’ work is around violence, and nutrition and caring. If basic needs are met, we can help reduce violence.”
Moreover, the school district stations security officers at every high school and middle school, and has its own police force of 13 officers. They help with lockdowns if police are chasing a fugitive through the neighborhood. “We have a huge investment in social and emotional health. Every school has access to grief counselors,” Flint continued.
But in the end, the school district cannot stop the violence in the streets.
“What OPD [Oakland Police Department] can’t accomplish, we can’t,” in ending the bloodshed on the streets. “We have three lockdowns a week. We send letters home to parents about safety all the time. We focus on bullying.”
This story and the entire Education Voices series was made possible through the support of The California Endowment. Student reporters for this series are participants in programs at The East Oakland Youth Development Center in East Oakland.
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