Oakland high school confronts daily violence
Castlemont High in East Oakland, looks like many other California schools – colorful box-style buildings with big windows – but inside, teacher Demetria Huntsman and several students are deconstructing a shooting that happened out front just 30 minutes before I got there.
"I wanted to find out from you guys, what was this lockdown that happened today?" Huntsman asks. A chorus of teens reply, their voices overlapping in the small classroom. It was gunshots, they say.
One student, 16-year-old Joseph Hopkins, had been close to the action. He was walking with a friend outside the school when a driver in a car started shooting.
"We just like heard gun shots, so she just dropped her stuff and we just both turned around and started running," he says. "That’s the closest I’ve ever came (sic) to almost like actually getting shot."
This after-school group – run by the local organization Youth ALIVE! – is one of many violence prevention programs serving the neighborhood. And the violence is daunting. According to police department data, between March and October of this year, there was an average of three shootings a day within a mile and a half of Castlemont High, including one last April where bullets came through the front door.
"If I can wake up one day, walk outside with the possibility of getting shot at any point and time, that’s kind of nerve racking every day to do," says 14-year-old Trevor Watson, one of the youngest members of the group.
Huntsman, the facilitator, nods calmly.
"You bring up a good point Trevor," she says, "Because you feel that a school at 3:30 in daylight, just the thought of maybe that’s not a safe place, that’s a real difficult reality."
"You can be at the...safest place that you think and then some type of violence busts out," Watson says.
A block-by-block difference
In spite of the violence, kids we talked to say Castlemont High is one of the few places they feel safe, in part because of programs designed to help students cope with regular shootings––maybe even prevent them.
"It is up to adults and professionals to help them understand and process it and respond to it appropriately, so it can be a tool for learning and growth," says Alex Briscoe, the Director of Alameda County Health Care Services.
In the Castlemont neighborhood, according to county reports, homicide is the leading cause of death for young people. Briscoe says the life expectancy for residents in this area is ten years shorter than that of people living in the upscale Oakland Hills just over a mile away.
"We can tell you how long you’re going to live by what zip code you live in," he says.
Interim Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent says the police are exploring options to target the violence near Castlemont.
“It’s not difficult for us to look at a map and see where the most significant crimes are occurring,” he says. “[This area has] seen more than its share of shootings and homicides over the years. The city has six crime response teams. I’ve taken 5 out of 6 and focused them on far East Oakland.”
You can't afford to ignore guns here
Sitting on the steps in front of his apartment, 14-year-old Trevor Watson -- the same kid from the after-school group at Castlemont -- says the popping sounds of gunfire sometimes keep him up at night.
To deal with it, he tries to ignore it.
"I see stuff like that so often it doesn’t affect me any more," he says.
But that stoic facade drops when a kid walks into the courtyard in front of Watson’s apartment. He’s holding something under his shirt. Watson's usually booming voice suddenly drops to a whisper.
"[He's] .... got a gun. Most likely he has a gun."
Watson explains he glimpsed the telltale handle of a gun when the kid was adjusting his clothing. He says the kid lives in the house directly across from him.
Even if you want to, you can’t afford to ignore guns here.
Across the street from Castlemont High, on a chilly Saturday morning in December, about twenty kids ranging from toddlers to teens run, climb and squeal at a playground while three security guards in bright yellow shirts look on. The group, East Oakland Community Playdate, has been meeting here once a month for the last several years. Parents who participate know the neighborhood has its problems with violence. In April, there was a shooting near the playground and the families had to take cover.
"I was scared," says six-year-old Paolo, thinking back to the day the shots rang out. He points to Youth UpRising, the major community center in the neighborhood that’s attached to the playground. "I had to go inside the building."
Paolo's mom, Stephanie Pepitone, is the organizer of the playgroup. She says, despite the April scare, she’s dedicated to the neighborhood and wants to stay. But the shooting was still a wake-up call for her family.
"In the same way we teach our children about fire safety, 'stop, drop and roll,' it was the first time we realized we had to do the same kind of safety training with our son in terms of what to do when you hear gunshots," she says. “I still don’t feel like I can let my son run around freely in our neighborhood, and it doesn’t feel any different than it did ten years ago.”
Olis Simmons is the Executive Director of Youth UpRising.
“When you have nothing to live for, you will die for anything, and we’ve proven that,” says Simmons. “[But the young people] didn’t create this situation no matter how much we try to blame them for the conditions in which they were born. They’ve inherited this failure from adults.”
When I ask if she thinks young people in the neighborhood seem fearless, she disagrees.
“They’re not fearless. If you understand complex trauma, you understand that response to fear is anger and violence. In fact they’re scared to death. They’re carrying guns because they’re afraid for their lives.”
In 2012, Youth Uprising held a gun buyback the day after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. They netted 700 guns. Last month, they held another buyback. As part of a statewide initiative, 1500 guns were collected.
Simmons says these efforts are important...but the problem of gun violence can’t be fixed quickly.
“It took three generations to get here,” she says. “And I think it’s reasonable for us to think that 15-20 years we could see a difference, but not next year.”
But for the young people we interviewed, they want to see change in Oakland now. They want better public safety. And an end to gun violence as an everyday threat.
This story was produced by Youth Radio.