An Oakland 9-Year-Old, Shot and Paralyzed, Struggles to Return to School
Two days before her ninth birthday last May, Jacqueline Funes was in her front yard, on 66th Avenue in East Oakland, playing with her little brother, Jonathan. A van stopped just down the street.
Inside their home, Jacqueline's mom, Silvia Funes, heard gunfire. Jonathan went racing inside to his mom.
"Where's Jackie?" she asked.
Outside, Jacqueline lay on the ground. She had been shot in the neck as two assailants from the van opened fire on a man walking nearby.
The shooting not only transformed the lives of Jacqueline and her family, but also those of her friends, her classmates and her teachers.
"She’ll probably never walk again," says Liz Torres, who was Jacqueline's second-grade teacher two years ago at Cox Academy, a charter school in East Oakland. "She’ll probably never use her hands, be able to take care of herself, hold a book again."
Torres gets teary when she says this. There's something about this shooting she can't get over. For months after the Jacqueline was wounded, Torres found herself stopping by to visit, first in an Oakland hospital and later at her home.
One afternoon in December, Jacqueline is lying in bed at home, a colorful blanket pulled up to her chest, when Torres arrives.
So far, almost two months after getting out of the hospital, no one from the Oakland Unified School District has come to Jacqueline's house to help her with her schooling. Torres has been stopping by to bring her books.
"Have you been reading?" Torres asks her. She wants to make sure that Jacqueline, who's a bookworm, keeps up that habit.
Timidly, Jacqueline answers, "Yes."
"What?" Torres teases. "What have you been reading?"
Jacqueline smiles and banters right back. “How old are you, Ms. Torres?”
Then, Jacqueline speaks softly to Torres.
"I dreamed something sad," Jacqueline says. "That I can’t stand up, and then when I wake up, I start crying."
Torres leans in closer to hear her.
"Why did they have to stop at my house?" Jacqueline asks. "Who were those guys, anyway?"
"I don't know," Torres answers. "It wasn't fair, Jackie."
Since the shooting, Jacqueline has been able to move only her head and one arm, but not her fingers. Now, she looks toward the windowsill, where six Disney princess figurines are lined up next to a music box. She asks her teacher to wind it up and open it. They sit still together for a few minutes, listening to a passage from "The Nutcracker."
"Good I’m alive," says Jacqueline.
"Yes, it’s really good you’re alive," Torres answers.
Jacqueline has lost months of schooling. After she was shot, she went through five and a half months of rehabilitation at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland.
The family waited for two months. During that time, her mom, Silvia Funes, kept asking for help.
"The district hadn’t moved at all," says Silvia Funes, in her native language, Spanish. "I think maybe they thought that she was just in recuperation, because they didn’t tell me anything. I went to the school, and they asked if a teacher had come. I said no, no one has come."
Oakland district spokesman Troy Flint admits the district took too long and cites several reasons for the delay. He says the hospital did not give the district much advance notice that Jacqueline would be released. Then, he says there was some confusion within the district over whether to send a special education teacher. And on top of that, the district teachers assigned to deliver instruction to students at home had full caseloads in the fall.
Silvia Funes was frustrated because, without a teacher, Jacqueline was desperately bored at a time when schoolwork could have boosted her spirits.
"She can't move her body," Funes says. "But her mind is fine. She can read, she can yell, she can speak."
Jacqueline Funes is just one of hundreds of Oakland children whose lives have been drastically altered by violence.
Last year, 7 children under 18 were killed, and 88 children were wounded in shootings in the city, the Police Department says. In the previous nine years, 980 kids in Oakland visited emergency rooms for gunshot wounds, according to data from the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.
Of course, this kind of trauma inflicts a wide range of psychic wounds on family and friends of those who have been shot. But it also exacts a heavy price on the educational lives of the victims and their schoolmates.
We know how many months Jacqueline is behind. But what about the impact on her little brother in second grade? On her neighbors and classmates? How does the fallout from this cumulative violence manifest itself in schools?
Jacqueline's former teacher, Liz Torres, says she's haunted by the hidden costs.
"How do you provide mental health services to hundreds and hundreds of kids? It’s the undetected ones that I’m worried about," Torres says. "It’s the cousins of Jacqueline, it’s the best friend of Jacqueline, who is now just totally traumatized. It's the kids that just heard about it, and now are susceptible, because they have all this anger."
Most shootings in Oakland occur in the flatlands of East and West Oakland.
Jacqueline attended third grade at Community United Elementary. The school is in a neighborhood where shootings are so commonplace that it was locked down several times last year. One of the lockdowns this year was particularly bad, says Marisa Morales, Jacqueline's third-grade teacher.
"There was a drive-by. It was a semiautomatic or something. There were multiple shots," Morales says. "At 3 o'clock, we had just dismissed our students. We had students everywhere, and families, and kids, little kids. And everybody was just running, trying to get inside the building, trying to shut all the doors. That was a bad one. Most of the time, the lockdowns are so routine, the kids don’t even blink."
Morales says there was a lot of fear and confusion in her classroom after Jacqueline was shot.
"Students were not really sure what had happened," Morales says. "There were a lot of questions. They thought she might be dead. They didn't really understand what it would mean that she was paralyzed. That was probably the hardest, explaining to them what that meant, that she was alive, but she couldn't move."
Students in safer neighorhoods just don’t have this burden.
Nobody knows this better than Jacqueline's second-grade teacher, Liz Torres. She now teaches at Montclair Elementary. It’s a school in the more affluent Oakland hills. The neighborhood doesn't even register on the Police Department's map of shootings in the city.
Torres says students like Jacqueline and her classmates are at a major disadvantage.
"They’ve got so much more work to do than most of my students that walk through my door today at Montclair Elementary, ready to learn, full belly," Torres says. "They didn’t just walk through a place where their mom was scared they might get shot. They didn’t have that experience."
Torres is acutely aware her students at Montclair are getting an entirely different education from those on 66th Avenue.
"We’re in the same city. It’s the same tax dollars. It's so inequitable," Torres says. "It's just, the distribution of support and resources is set up for this to happen."
By this spring, Torres had stopped visiting Jacqueline as often as she had last year. It was an emotional strain for her. And she knew that in January, the school district had finally sent a teacher to Jacqueline's home to teach her two hours a day.
Jacqueline’s mom, Silvia Funes, wanted a full day of instruction.
"She doesn’t have schoolwork to do here," says Funes. "That’s what I don’t understand. Why do they give her two hours of class, and count it for a whole day? I know that’s not enough, and it’s not right."
Oakland schools spokesman Troy Flint said the two hours of instruction each day allowed the district to compensate for its earlier delays providing a teacher.
"Normally one hour a day of home instruction is the standard," Flint says. "... In total now, she’s actually received more instruction in terms of total number of hours than if she’d just been receiving the normal complement all along. We have made up the missed time in terms of instruction."
Those two hours a day motivated Jacqueline to get out of bed. She also had nurses coming every day of the week. She was learning how to operate a wheelchair with her head and play games on an iPad with a pointer she held in her mouth.
Silvia Funes says that, more than anything, Jacqueline wanted to return to school.
"She says she wants to go to the same school, because that’s where all her classmates are, and she loves her teacher, and her teacher loves her," says Funes.
The district initially recommended Jacqueline go to a special school with other kids in wheelchairs and staff to help her. Jacqueline didn't care for that idea.
"She said, 'If I am in a wheelchair and there are no other kids in wheelchairs at my school, I don’t care,' " says Silvia Funes. "She doesn’t let anything stop her."
Funes asked for another meeting to negotiate. And this time, the district agreed to have her return to Community United.
Earlier this month, almost a full year after she was shot, Jacqueline was back at school, in the fourth grade. She started by going a few hours a day.
The other kids and teacher are glad to see her, greeting her joyfully on the playground.
It won’t be easy for Jacqueline. She has months of schooling to make up. In class, she sits at a table in the back, her nurse by her side at all times. To do math, the nurse straps a pencil onto the one hand Jacqueline can move, and guides it over the paper to finish equations.
Later, in the library, a technology professional sticks a tiny silver circle to her forehead that allows her to turn pages with a cursor on the computer.
One thing is certain: Jacqueline is determined to learn.
She tells her mom, "Once I can move my fingers, I’m going to do whatever it takes to grab a pencil."