By Roby Chavez | PBS | June 14, 2022
NEW ORLEANS – Moments after Morris Jeff Community School’s graduation ceremony ended May 31, gunshots pierced the air. The crowd of students, many still in caps and gowns, and family members scattered. Some attendees fell to the ground as the joyful moment turned deadly for members of the Class of 2022.
Augustine Greenwood, 80, a mother to six children and grandmother to 15, died in the shooting. She had just watched her youngest grandson get his diploma. The violence broke out in a gun-free zone on a local university campus. Two more were injured. Police say six guns were seized at the scene.
In a nation where adolescents under 19 were more likely to die from a gun-related injury in 2020 than a car accident, New Orleans ranks among the worst cities for firearm death. Louisiana experiences the second-highest rate of gun-related deaths in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s firearm mortality data.
When Geraldine Greenwood-Lashley, Greenwood’s daughter, memorialized her mother in a post on Facebook, she also directed a message to those responsible, writing, “You have ruined my son and family’s world.”
“The graduating seniors of Morris Jeff were there to share in their collective achievements and bask in the brightness of their futures – only to have their optimism ripped apart by gun violence,” Henderson Lewis Jr., the NOLA Public Schools Superintendent, told the PBS NewsHour in a statement after the shooting. He had spoken at that graduation alongside the mayor. “This has got to stop.”
In New Orleans, gun violence has been a problem for decades as the number of deaths from firearms among children is steadily rising. In 2022, Louisiana has six times the national average of mass shootings per capita, defined as shootings in which four or more people are injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive. New Orleans leads the state with four mass shootings so far this year.
On the same day across town, Tory Morgan, 19, was leaving for Northwestern State University. As the star athlete approached the end of his high school career, he sought opportunities to help him make it out of the city, in part hoping to “escape the city’s gun violence.” While he saw his newly earned diploma and full scholarship to Northwestern as huge accomplishments, he was most happy that he lived to graduate.
“Gun violence is taking over. It’s not if you know anyone who’s been shot, it’s how many,” Morgan said. “Every day, you’re fighting to survive. I definitely feel grateful that I was able to survive. I made it out.” Morgan said.
In the last year, two friends and fellow students at Karr High School – Keyron Ross and Caleb Johnson – were killed in separate incidents of gun violence. Police charged a fellow student with Ross’ murder. Prosecutors said Johnson was killed in a triple shooting 21 days before graduation when 20 shots were fired during a gun exchange. A year later, police arrested Johnson’s father for murdering his son’s alleged 21-year-old killer during a drive-by shooting.
Morgan is tired of seeing his friends in coffins.
“I know many students I grew up with and who I went to school with who got killed by gun violence and fell victim to the situation and the crime. I can’t even count them on my hands,” he said. “It’s devastating. It hurts to know they had a future and it’s taken away … It makes you just sit down and say, ‘I got to get out. It could easily be me.’”
Why more children are being killed by gun violence
The youth gun violence epidemic took center stage again following the mass shootings in Tulsa, Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school. In a prime-time address on May 24, President Joe Biden highlighted the loss.
“To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away,” the president said, who repeated his concerns in a second speech days later, calling for gun law reform. He cited a May report from the CDC that listed guns as the No. 1 killer of children and adolescents in 2020. The agency said firearms overtook car accidents and cancer as the leading cause of death for that age group, up to 19 years old.
Several high-profile shootings in New Orleans have made advocates reach their breaking point in the last year. A 3-year old girl was shot and killed inside her home in the French Quarter. A 7-year-old was fatally shot while riding with her mom in a car. A 12-year old boy was shot and left to die on a street.
“People want to see something changed. People across the city and nation are seeing this increase and are very afraid of how it may impact them. It’s scary for people,” said Red Devitt, the leader of the New Orleans branch of the Moms Demand Action advocacy organization. “I think families are scared. I think they are considering leaving the area because of the violence. I’d definitely say it’s a breaking point, but it’s not an issue unique to New Orleans.”
The NewsHour made repeated requests to the City of New Orleans, the New Orleans Police Department, and the Orleans Parish District Attorney for gun violence data broken down by age, race, and gender. None could cite the data being used to drive the city’s gun violence reduction plan. Other cities, like Denver and Philadelphia, have publicly mapped out gun violence data in order to study the factors driving youth gun violence.
Between January 2021 and April 2022, 24 children under 18 were killed by a gunshot wounds. As of June 9, nine children and teens from this age group have been killed so far this year, according to figures from the Orleans Parish Coroner’s office compiled by the Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC), a New-Orleans nonprofit and watchdog group that monitors crime and corruption. A majority of the victims – 20 – were Black males.
In the New Orleans region, homicide is the top cause of injury deaths for children aged 1-14, according to the New Orleans Health Department. That’s the highest rate for the entire state of Louisiana.
Morgan said the fight to survive means a lot of young people have guns, and they are easy to get.
“It’s super easy. There are so many on the streets. You can see them every day,” he said. “I see young kids having them. They don’t even know how to work it, but they have it. If I guessed, I’d say they are scared and feel like they need it to survive, which is the problem. I don’t blame them. I just wish they had help.”
Data from a 2019 study from the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES), a national nonprofit health organization based in New Orleans, showed how the intergenerational trauma caused by youth gun violence runs deep in the city. The survey measured the exposure to violence of roughly 1,500 participants aged 11 to 19. They found that one in five children witnessed a murder, and more than half had someone close to them murdered.
Finding solutions falls on the city’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which was created last year by Mayor LaToya Cantrell to decrease gun-related murders and other related crimes in New Orleans. The goal of the program is to reduce those numbers over the next 50 years.
The mayor noted as part of a 2019 report outlining her plan to decrease gun violence that there had been at least 145 murders in New Orleans every year for the previous 50 years, adding that at the time, the city had the seventh highest murder rate of all major U.S. cities.
The plan includes gathering more data and tracking where crime happens, improving operations at the New Orleans Police Department by solving more cases, and building its own crime lab. It also emphasizes delivering community-based services to help neighborhoods at risk of gun violence.
So far this year, numbers are rising. Shooting incidents are up 92 percent compared to 2019, and homicide is up 150 percent, with 135 people killed as of June 13, according to MCC, which is not affiliated with the city’s gun violence prevention office. Last week, there were 12 more homicides.
Efforts of the city’s Office of Gun Violence and Prevention have been in the crosshairs of the New Orleans City Council. Council member JP Morrell threatened that the office could lose funding if it can’t show results. Meanwhile, other members supported the program as a “holistic” effort against crime, as recently reported by NOLA.com.
According to the report, critics accuse the Office of Gun Violence and other programs for at-risk youth of “spending taxpayer money to dubious effect and crowding out funding for worthy non-profits.”
Patrick Young, the director of the New Orleans Office of Gun Violence Prevention, said the annual budget for his office is $216,000, while violence costs the city $25.7 million in medical costs each year, according to 2018 figures.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s a totally devastated landscape that we need everybody in on. It’s just like after Katrina,” Young said. “We need that same kind of energy to come back and impact the lives of these kids. We need as many people to get in front of those kids to help them understand that they can deal with their feelings without violence.” Young, who was formerly incarcerated and lost a brother to gun violence, said he can relate.
Despite the urgency, Young said there is a lack of a central database to map the violence plaguing young people.
Young said a new partnership with Tulane University’s Violence Prevention Institute will create a CDC-funded research hub for youth violence prevention. A report is expected early next year, which Young hopes will provide some insight as to what is driving the surge as well as potential solutions.
“We haven’t tapped into the why. There hasn’t been any report produced to say what works. We know the murder rate fluctuates, but we never know why,” he said.
Young said the shooting at the Morris Jeff graduation was a harbinger of another long, hot, and violent summer in the Big Easy. On a single day last week, a 16-year-old boy was killed, and a 17-year-old girl was injured by gunfire.
“Every kid is at risk,” Young said. “If we can’t learn how to teach them how to control emotions, then we’ll see what we saw at graduation. This summer, we will see a spike like no other,” predicted Young. “We need to look at violence as a public health issue and look at it the same way as a virus … Violence spreads the same way, and on social media; it mutates.”
But, Young said “unity is the key” to breaking the cycle of violence that keeps taking young lives.
“It feels like we are on an island, like we are by ourselves. We need a unified effort to really work together. We can’t have peace if we’re in pieces.”
Focusing on change
Educators at Edna Karr High School, which is run by Inspire NOLA, a charter school management network, have seen trauma from gun violence permeate schools. From the classroom to the lunchroom to the football field, students are constantly reminded of the epidemic that surrounds them. As a result, the school relies on a mentor program that involves everyone, even coaches.
“Coaches aren’t just coaches. We teach kids to survive. Coaches are teachers. Coaches are mentors. We have to go beyond the classroom, not only to teach our children but to reach them,” said Brice Brown, who has been a coach at Karr for 17 seasons and has been to nearly a dozen student funerals.
“We have to know more about them emotionally and socially than we do academically. Our key focus is to not only let them believe what they can do, but to erase the notion of what they can’t do,” he said.
Brown, known for immersing himself in his students’ lives, recalls delivering food to a player in the middle of the night, not just because he lived in poverty and was hungry, but to keep him safely indoors.
“All we have to do is choose to help and choose to listen. It’s a powerful thing. They have to know you believe in them.”
Inspire NOLA CEO Jamar McNeely, who oversees 5,700 students and eight schools, estimates he’s been to nearly 60 funerals in the last two decades. Two of them were in the last year. Each time, “it definitely rips through our whole community,” he said.
“I can remember the first loss just like it was yesterday. Seeing that student in a casket never goes away,” McNeely said. “The number keeps rising every single year. What’s even more hurtful is when I see our youth in pain. I see our youth in a state of loss. Our school community, in many aspects, is not the same for the entire year.”
In 2019, Karr had a graduation rate of 94.5 percent, according to state data. Mcneely said this year the rate was 99 percent. McNeely and Brown like to also focus on the thousands, like Morgan, who have graduated.
“Our students deserve grace and love. I believe in our students wholeheartedly,” McKneely said. “Yes, we have some stories of tragedy, but we also have a lot of stories of success. They need to see how those successful kids come back. Then, they will want to see themselves come back and tell their story to the next group of kids.”
Tory Morgan knows he’ll soon return to New Orleans to tell his story to help lift the next generation. In fact, he’s already a mentor to a younger ballplayer.
“I know, It could have easily been me.… I want to help the next person; It’s why I’m happy I’m able to leave and go to college. There’s a kid who’s already watching me. If he sees that I made it out, maybe he’s going to follow me,” he said. “Hopefully, I can reach them and show them there is a different way to go.”