Violence Causes Ripple Effects for Thousands of Oakland Students
Oakland’s first homicide victim of 2014 was a boy named Lee Weathersby III. He was shot on New Year's Eve and died early the next morning. Police say it appears he was not the intended target of the shooting.
Lee would have turned 14 that year. His death hit his middle school, Alliance Academy, hard.
Two months later, on his birthday, 400 fellow students gathered in a circle on the school blacktop with his family and sang "Happy Birthday," Stevie Wonder-style, to remember him.
Then the middle-schoolers marched around the school and lined up on 98th Avenue. They held up their index fingers and thumbs to make an L, for "Lee" and "love." They shouted “L’s up!” Then they pointed their fingers down, shouting, "Guns down!"
Diamond Allen, an eighth-grader at the time, helped organize the event. He and Lee had been friends since the first day of sixth grade.
"It used to be Lee, myself, Demond, Romelo and Keishun, always hanging out with each other after school, going to each other's houses, going to play basketball, going to Sunnyside Park, just to hang out and have laughs, going to his house to play video games," Diamond says. "We were like brothers."
When there is a crisis like this one -- when a student is killed or wounded, or a shooting happens near a campus, or children sidestep dead bodies on the way to school -- often a school district grief counseling team arrives. The week after Lee's death, almost 200 kids had to get therapy. Diamond was one of them.
"It was hard focusing in class, just knowing that Lee was not sitting by me, Lee was not there, it was an empty seat," says Diamond. "I was hurt inside, I was angry, I was sad. So many mixed emotions going on. Just, like, confused, like, why it happened?"
It's well documented that experiencing ongoing violence can make it harder for kids to succeed in school. One study on adverse childhood experiences showed that traumatic incidents in childhood can have long-lasting effects on health and development.
The coordinator of behavioral health at the Oakland Unified School District is Barbara McClung. She says the effects of violence on kids like Diamond spill into the classroom and make it hard for kids to learn."Difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, feeling hopeless or helpless, being fearful or afraid. ... All those things require a lot of skill at self-regulation in order to sort of suppress that and focus on academic content. And for so many of our students, that is really impossible," says McClung.
Diamond got his first "C" grade after Lee died.
From 2002 to 2014 -- the time it has taken for a kid in Oakland to go from kindergarten to senior year in high school -- 111 children under 18 have been shot and killed in the city, according to the city's Police Department. The department also reports that 1,280 children were wounded by gunfire from 2004 through 2014.
Those statistics don't capture the number of students who have seen others in their lives -- siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins -- shot, stabbed or beaten. McClung estimates that half the district's 37,000 or so students will need some form of mental health services. That's more than double the estimated national rate.
Because violence is concentrated in certain Oakland neighborhoods, certain schools have more kids traumatized by violence.
"When we convene kids at school sites and we sit in circle together and we ask, 'Besides this event, have you ever lost anyone due to violence?' three-quarters of the kids, no matter what grade they’re in -- you know, elementary school kids, middle, high school -- raise their hand. And then they share out how they’ve lost their father, they've lost their uncle, they've lost their brother, they've lost their cousin, they've lost their sister," says McClung.
"The sad truth is that the violence of having someone murdered wasn’t a new experience," says Ashlee George, restorative justice coordinator at Alliance Academy. "A lot of students, and adults, we’ve all gone through it. So when it happens, you almost get numb."
Teachers and counselors have the heartbreaking job of trying to heal the unseen wounds of children who are affected by violence against loved ones and to teach them, despite it all.
"Sometimes the tears want to come out, and they feel like ... they don’t even know why," Morales says. "So that will lead to one of my students, just completely unprovoked, just punching another girl in the face. It leads to students trying to read, but not being able to focus on the words, so they just sit there and they stare at a book, and they’re trying so hard, but they can't."
Oakland has tried to put more mental health professionals in schools that need them the most. These are not the school counselors, nor are they the school psychologists, who tend to focus more on special-ed assessments. These therapists are there specifically for kids' mental health issues. Jasmine Gonzalez leads the team at Diamond’s middle school.
"They're already coping -- they're so resilient -- they're able to come here to school, though they might not always be able to get through class," says Gonzalez. "I really try to focus on their strengths and then find other ways that they can cope: journaling, taking deep breaths, different coping skills, that they might already be using, but highlighting those things and giving them new skills."
There is some progress in terms of responding to students' problems. McClung says that in 2000, only a handful of schools in Oakland had a mental health professional on-site. Beginning last year, she says all schools have at least one, though not all are full time. The improvement is due to the district's partnership with Alameda County’s Health Services Agency, under Alex Briscoe.
"We took a lemon, the increasing concentration of poverty in public education, which is the harsh truth, and we turned it into lemonade," says Briscoe.
Alameda County took Medi-Cal money and redirected it to put therapists on-site in the public schools. That’s pretty unusual. Other counties have visited Briscoe to figure out the formula for their own students. Briscoe says in six years, the county doubled the number of children from low-income families it’s helping with mental health care.
"They stay in school longer, they do better in school, they go to emergency room less. They self-report better self-regulation and capacity," says Briscoe. "[It's] healthy development of children. We know what healthy development is, we know how to support it. It happens in rich communities every day."
The problem is there are long waitlists for therapists in Oakland public schools.
Lee Weathersby's school, Alliance Academy, shares a campus with another middle school. In the 2013-14 school year, there were three therapists there, for about 700 students. Clinical case manager Jasmine Gonzalez says each of them saw about 10 to 15 students on a weekly basis, in addition to family outreach and crisis calls. After the first week of grief counseling after Lee died, his friend Diamond Allen never started regular therapy at school. He relied on talks with the school's restorative justice coordinator and his parents.
Diamond's father and mother, Jesus and Nicole Rodriguez, have known their own share of violence and trauma. They're doing their best to make life better for their own kids and other kids in Oakland. Not long before Lee's death, Diamond's parents had already decided to move to a different neighborhood. They found one with fewer homicides, one they hope will be safer for his little brothers and sisters. They sent Diamond away to a boarding school for high school, Eastside College Preparatory Academy in East Palo Alto. The school is focused on getting first-generation students into college.
But Diamond's old friends still live over near 98th Avenue. One of them was recently robbed at gunpoint. Diamond's parents still feel connected to those kids. So does Diamond. The family is trying hard to stay in touch with them all.
After Lee's death, Diamond's parents raised money to buy a van to be able to pick all of Diamond's friends up and take them to church or to come spend weekends at their house. They have dreams to one day open a restaurant that can double as a community center where young people can feel safe and build relationships with mentors.
"I want them to live," says Diamond's dad, Jesus Rodriguez. "I want them to be successful. I want them to reach 18, and further on. I don’t want them to slip through the cracks in society. There’s so many cracks to slip in, it’s almost like they’re walking around on eggshells, just waiting to crack something, you know? I just want them to make it."
In their kitchen, Diamond's mom, Nicole Rodriguez, pulls up a video on the family's computer. It shows Lee and Diamond and a bunch of their friends, girls and boys, playing leapfrog in a park.
"They don’t even look like this anymore," says Rodriguez. "That’s Lee with the red shirt."
In the video, the kids are laughing and clapping. Diamond turns away from the screen. He puts his head down on the kitchen table.
Later, in his bedroom, he reaches into the closet and pulls out a white T-shirt, covered with scribbles, the kind middle-schoolers give to their friends to write on at the end of the year.
"He wrote, 'Lee Weathersby. Diamond, I will miss you, brother,'" he reads.
The pain is still there. Diamond's just learning to live with it.
This is the second story in our "Books and Bullets" series about how chronic violence in some neighborhoods puts some kids at a disadvantage in school, even before they walk in the door.