I recently sat down with some extraordinary stories shared with me by Jamila Larson, a former colleague at the Children's Defense Fund. Jamila is now a social worker with the National Center for Children and Families, assigned to a public elementary school in one of Washington, D.C.'s most troubled neighborhoods.
She has seen firsthand how a community's troubles affect its children, too, and how the children cope — or can't. She regularly shares her experiences in a series of essays she calls "Notes From a Hopeful Social Worker."
Last December, Jamila wrote "No Killing on Our Playground," about an especially chilling school day not long before the holiday break. That cold morning, two teachers who were arriving to work around 7 saw what appeared to be a pile of old clothes in the middle of the playground. As they got closer, they realized it was actually a woman's body surrounded by a pool of frozen blood — the victim of a gunshot wound to the head.
Children arriving later that morning had to navigate through a sea of police cars, as police "do not cross" tape surrounded homicide officers hard at work on the crime scene between the hopscotch squares and monkey bars. Teachers found themselves scrambling to tape paper on their classroom windows to block the view of the police activity and the covered body, which wasn't removed from the playground until several hours later.
The day after the murder, Jamila writes, she asked a small group of children to brainstorm ways to help students feel safe again on their playground after what happened. "One child chimed in, 'Let's put a sign on the playground that says, 'No killing on our playground.'
"Another child said, 'But they have signs about 'no dogs allowed,' but people do it anyway' … . And so, our table of six thoughtful little boys were scratching their heads about what to do, as the abandoned public housing buildings hulked over their heads outside the window, and their feet swung from their chairs, barely touching the floor."
Even as these small children were trying to figure out how they and their friends could feel safer, the killing on their playground had only a two-sentence mention buried in that day's paper. In a neighborhood saturated by gun violence, even a murder on what should be the protected space of a school was treated as more of the same — just old news.
Just a few weeks later, a car chase in front of the school, complete with an exchange of gunfire, put the school on lockdown again.
As Jamila wrote in July, "People often ask me how the children are doing following the murder … . In all honesty, it has receded into the background because the shootings keep piling up in their memories." She remembers, "Even several months later at the end of the school year in June, as I was escorting a second-grade girl to the playground, she cowered at the sight of a police helicopter flying over our school. 'I don't want to get shot!' she said.
"Her panicked face looked like a war-torn child in Palestine, Croatia, Iraq, Sudan … . At the anger management group that I led on the day of the car chase and shootings right past our playground, I asked the group how they felt. 'Sad,' said one. 'Angry,' said another. 'I want to go home,' said a third. 'I almost had a heart attack'… .
"I asked the group what they thought about the suspects. The children were remarkably forgiving: 'Maybe they didn't know there were kids here.' "
Maybe they didn't know there were kids here. This can't be the excuse adults give for letting our children grow up under these conditions.
But what better excuse do we have?
Marian Wright Edelman is president and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund.