Sumner High students call for end to violence
April 04, 2014 11:00 pm • By Elisa Crouch email@example.com 314-340-8119Shirley Womack embraces her son Jordan, 6, during a ceremony at Sumner High School on April 4, 2014, to remember Sumner students who have died recently. Womack's son, Beion, a sophomore at Sumner, was fatally shot in November of 2012. Beion's step-father Carl Beck-Els (left), and cousin Johnesha Womack (right), accompany Shirley. Photo by Christian Gooden, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sumner High School students release balloons outside the school on April 4, 2014, to memorialize four students who have died recently. Photo by Christian Gooden, email@example.com
ST. LOUIS • Sophomores at Sumner High School filed into their lofty auditorium Friday for a peace summit — a rallying call to stop the gang and gun violence that has taken four of their classmates in two years.
A sign honoring James Moore, Chauncey Brown, Pierre Childs and Beion Womack was perched on an easel on stage — members of a much larger group of St. Louis Public Schools students who have died in recent months.
“It’s got to stop. It has to stop,” Principal Isiah McHellen said into the microphone.
This school year alone, 17 children in the city school system have fallen, mostly to violence. Some of that violence was at the hands of their peers. The number exceeds the student deaths reported by all St. Louis County school districts over the same period.
The number equates to an entire classroom at some schools. And it’s quadruple the loss experienced by the city school system in 2012-13.
“We can’t have kids believe this is normal. Ever,” Superintendent Kelvin Adams said at a public forum recently.
At Sumner, family members of the four boys filled the front two rows. Some wore shirts with their loved one’s face screen-printed on the front. Their grief was evident.
“I wish he was here,” said Deadra Runds, mother of Chauncey Brown. He was found in September lying face down on a nearby street in the Ville neighborhood, dead from a gunshot wound to his chest.
“When you see someone doing something with a gun, walk away,” Runds told the Sumner students. “We expect you all to graduate.”
For many of the city’s young victims, walking away wasn’t possible.
• On March 26, a fourth-grader at Froebel Elementary School died after being shot in the head as he sat at home working at his computer. The gunman fired 10 times through a first-floor window. Police say another person in the home was the target. Two teenagers and three adults also were there at the time.
• Days earlier, Donivan Chatman, a 15-year-old at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, was standing with friends at University Street and Glasgow Avenue when a person shot at him from a car, killing him.
• In October, Sumner sophomore James Moore, was waiting for a school bus near Barrett Brothers Park when he was targeted by a masked gunman. Moore ran into the park, and the gunman chased him, firing six shots.
“They weren’t doing anything,” said Arlivia Ross, Pierre’s aunt, as she looked at the names of the slain students from Sumner. Pierre “was just walking home from the store with our 4-year-old that day,” she said. His mother was on her front porch and saw the gunfire.
Of the city school students who have died, the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s office reported 12 deaths involving gun shots. The others were accidental, such as car crashes, or natural causes — such as asthma or illness.
The deaths have put St. Louis Public Schools’ trauma team on overload.
Six rotating teams of social workers go into a school to counsel children and staff members whenever a student dies. They make a plan based on the ages of children involved and the circumstances of the death.
Last year, the trauma teams addressed four deaths. This year, their workload has quadrupled.
Like Sumner, Vashon High School has lost multiple students — three in January. One died from gun violence. Two died from injuries sustained in a car crash. A member of the senior class was shot near the school in September, but survived.
The number of child gunshot victims in the city grew by two this week, but both are expected to survive. On Tuesday, an 11-year-old girl was shot after leaving a White Castle with her father. Hours later, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the Penrose neighborhood.
“We’ve been back to particular schools multiple times to continue to support the same children who are not just grieving the loss of one classmate or friend, but multiple,” said Megan Marietta, the district’s manager of social work services. “You put yourself in their situation and you imagine the amount of grief they are dealing with. ... It definitely takes a toll on us as professionals.”
At Sumner High, seniors Callan Turner and Kelcee Burton helped organized the peace summit with Annette Kennedy, the school's graduation coach, to help the sophomores vent pent up emotion. The losses have been devastating, they said. Some students still don’t know how to process it, months later.
“For days after they got killed, you didn’t even want to laugh or smile,” Turner said.
Inside the auditorium, the mood remained heavy. The sophomores — almost all 126 of them — followed families of their slain classmates outside a side door of the school, where they gripped the strings of helium-filled balloons.
They were silent as names of the four boys were read. Their classmates then released the rainbow of balloons and watched as they drifted over the neighborhood.
“We love you!” someone yelled.
Nancy Cambria of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report