SAM SANDERS, HOST:
I finished high school almost 17 years ago, so going back, it can be a little weird.
Where's your locker?
GABRIEL PATTEN: We don't use the lockers.
SANDERS: What? Everything's changed (laughter).
GABRIEL: We don't even have books to, like, take home. We leave all the books in the class, so...
GABRIEL: Yeah. We don't...
SANDERS: That's Gabriel Patten. He is a student at Castlemont High in East Oakland, Calif. He's giving me a tour.
GABRIEL: This used to be a kindergarten, I think.
GABRIEL: Yeah. There used to be a big, old play structure right here.
SANDERS: You know, as old as this makes me feel, talking with Gabriel, even 17 years later, a lot of things are still the same. There are crushes and cliques and classes and sports and all the petty, yet life-changing stuff of high school.
GABRIEL: All of a sudden, things will be OK with everybody, and then all of a sudden, things won't be OK with somebody.
SANDERS: As in like?
GABRIEL: Just between, like, a dispute or, like, somebody said something about somebody else - just normal, like, high school stuff. But it happened...
SANDERS: But here at Castlemont, you realize very quickly that it's very different.
AJAHNAY COOPER: This student, he used to go here. He got shot four times.
GABRIEL: I remember I was just standing outside, and, like, people were just shooting. It sounded like somebody was just off in a parking lot with just, like, heck-a (ph) bullets. And you could hear, like, that they were different types of guns.
ARMON HURST: I got held up in a robbery at the McDonald's down there. Somebody just came there, and he held the gun up to my head, and then he held it to the cashier. And then once he held it to the cashier, I looked. And the cashier, she was somebody I knew, that I went to church with. And her daughter went to - goes to Castlemont. So I was shocked. And she started crying, and the only thing I could do was just run. And then there was another gunman at the exit too.
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SANDERS: From NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Today on the show, we are talking guns and gun violence and how it affects students at schools like Castlemont High all over the country. There is a reason we're doing this episode now. It's because of a tragedy at another high school on the other side of the country. It's been one year since the Parkland shooting. I am sure you still remember it. On February 14, 2018, a former student entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and allegedly began shooting.
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EMMA GONZALEZ: In a little over six minutes, 17 of our friends were taken from us, 15 were injured and everyone, absolutely everyone in the Douglas community was forever altered. Everyone who was there...
SANDERS: This shooting, like many others, horrified the nation. There were pledges of action, calls for change - the kind of rhetoric that you hear after every mass shooting. And this one, though, felt different. This time, the kids from Parkland, they spoke up, and they spoke out. But one question I asked after Parkland was why we cared so much about these students, when all over the country, every day, young people are victims of gun violence. The Parkland kids actually asked that same question too. This is Parkland student Jacqueline Coren.
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JACQUELINE COREN: We openly recognize that we are privileged individuals that - and would not have received as much attention if it weren't for the affluence of our city.
JACQUELINE: Because of that, however, we share the stage, today and forever, with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.
SANDERS: Those other students from schools not as nice as Parkland, they don't land on the cover of magazines or all over cable news town halls. But today, we talk to them.
ARMON: My name is Armon Hurst. I live in East Oakland. I'm in - I'm a senior. It's my last year. Thank God.
SANDERS: You're smiling (laughter).
AJAHNAY: My name's Ajahnay Cooper. I'm a senior. I live in East Oakland.
GABRIEL: My name's Gabriel Patten. I live in East Oakland. I'm a - in 12th grade.
SANDERS: Armon, Ajahnay and Gabriel are surrounded by the threat of violence, sometimes daily. But they are also working to fight that. All three of them participate in a program called Youth ALIVE! Youth ALIVE! is a violence intervention program, and one of its initiatives is getting high schoolers to mentor young kids on the dangers of gun use and how to stop violence before it starts.
GABRIEL: The community we live in, it is dangerous. But a lot of people kind of try to ignore the fact. But at the ages of, like, seventh and eighth grade, that's when it becomes kind of more realistic. That's when you start seeing those things. But we're kind of trying to let them know, like, these things might happen around you, and we want to kind of prepare you to, like - what a wise decision would be to do in that situation.
SANDERS: Youth ALIVE! says that in 2017, there was on average almost one homicide a week in East Oakland. That's where these kids live. That's where Castlemont is. It is a world away from what you might think of when you hear Oakland or San Francisco or the Bay Area. East Oakland is close to all that, but it is not that. It's been plagued by gang violence and drug deals and shootings for years. The students I spoke with, they say guns, they're just about everywhere here. Here's Gabriel and Ajahnay.
GABRIEL: There's a very high percent of people that, like - not if they personally have a gun, like, if they needed to get a gun, they can get a gun because there's...
SANDERS: You're talking about in this neighborhood, in this school?
GABRIEL: Yeah, like, there is a lot of guns. (Laughter) Like...
SANDERS: If you wanted to get it, how would you do it?
AJAHNAY: You can just buy it off the street from somebody.
SANDERS: Like, how far would I need to walk from this campus to find someone to sell me one?
GABRIEL: To be honest, you could probably just go outside.
SANDERS: The students, they told me the story of this one time last year when they witnessed a shooting about a block from the school.
AJAHNAY: He got shot.
SANDERS: He got shot?
GABRIEL: He got shot.
SANDERS: That he is Fransua Senegal. Fransua was actually a coordinator with Youth ALIVE! when he was shot just off campus on March 27, 2018, just after school.
GABRIEL: It led from in the school that leaked to outside the school.
SANDERS: Like a fight or something?
GABRIEL: An incident.
GABRIEL: And he doesn't even work for Castlemont. He just...
SANDERS: ...Was in the program.
GABRIEL: He's in the program, and he just know all the kids. So he was like, I can't let the kids I know be in this type of stuff.
SANDERS: Oh, so he tried to flee, so it wouldn't be around the school.
GABRIEL: Things escalated. He ended up getting shot in the leg.
GABRIEL: And there was hecka (ph) kids there. Like, there was...
SANDERS: How far away from campus was it?
AJAHNAY: It was, like, literally you - there's a little center right here. It's called Youth UpRising. It was literally on the corner of this street. Like...
SANDERS: Oh, at the Youth UpRising. I just walked by there. With the coffee shop in it?
GABRIEL: Basketball courts.
AJAHNAY: Yeah, it happened right there.
GABRIEL: The street that's right there? It happened on that street.
SANDERS: So I'm trying to wrap my head around this because it's crazy. An adult who was in an after-school program to help high school students at this high school stay away from guns, he got shot by a high school student outside of this high school.
SANDERS: Fransua survived. He says he is still recovering, and he hasn't returned to the program just yet. Gabriel Ajahnay and Armon, they tell me they don't carry guns. But sometimes they still carry protection.
AJAHNAY: I personally - you know, I carry a pocket knife because, like, as a woman, like, you know, like...
SANDERS: Where is it? Let me see it.
AJAHNAY: I think it's in my backpack. I don't think I'd, like - yeah, it's in my backpack.
SANDERS: Do y'all carry anything?
GABRIEL: Sometimes I carry a knife.
SANDERS: How big is the knife?
GABRIEL: Probably - like, the blade's probably, like, a little bit longer than my middle finger.
SANDERS: This is nothing like what high school was for me. Probably nothing like high school for a lot of you listening.
Do you, like, wake up every day and say, this is not normal, or is it just normal at this point?
ARMON: It's normal.
SANDERS: It's normal.
ARMON: It's actually, like, numbing. Like, you don't even feel the pain no more. It's just, like, you know that something might go on today. Like, when people really ask me if I feel safer at home or at school, it's neither, you know. Somebody could either break into your house, or you could walk out into the street, and something could happen. And then when stuff like this happen at school, like, all the time, I don't feel safe nowhere.
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SANDERS: So what would it take to help Armon and his classmates feel safer at school, in their neighborhood? We'll talk with an expert about what actually works to reduce violence around places like Castlemont High. And these students I'm speaking with, they tell me what they would say if they could talk to the kids at Parkland. That's coming up after a short break. I'm Sam Sanders. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. We'll be right back.
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SANDERS: How long have you been covering gun violence and gun issues?
BILLIE WEISS: Probably since the late '80s.
SANDERS: Billie Weiss is one of California's leading experts on gun violence and how to prevent it. She's retired now, but she was an associate director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at UCLA. And she ran LA County's Violence Prevention Program. Billie told me that when she first began looking into guns and gun violence, one big thing surprised her.
WEISS: How easy it was to get a gun for kids. And, I mean, in those days, people - it - you could rent them on the street.
SANDERS: Rent them? Wow.
WEISS: You rent them from the gangs. You know, you'd rent one for an hour and a half or two hours.
SANDERS: Are you serious? I never knew that.
WEISS: I am serious. I am serious that you could rent them. And the other thing that happened that we finally stopped was anybody could sell guns in LA. If you wanted to do it legally, you got a license from ATF. But gun dealers would drive into neighborhoods, in black and brown neighborhoods primarily, and open up the back of their trunks and selling - they were selling guns out of the back of their cars.
SANDERS: Wow. Is it better now?
WEISS: It is better.
SANDERS: I mean, I know that California has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country now.
WEISS: We do.
SANDERS: But you look at certain places in California, gun violence is still rampant.
WEISS: That's right.
WEISS: Yeah. It still is. But it is better. I mean, we are losing far less people to guns these days than the - we were in the '90s. It is much better. But as you mention, in some neighborhoods, it doesn't matter what the rest of the country or the county is doing. If your kids are at risk, it still feels the same. And what's interesting is the public perception of it. You know, everybody sort of thinks that these - the mass shootings are the big issue, and they really are a very small proportion of what happens, I mean.
SANDERS: Why is that the case? I mean, I skeptically want to say, oh, it's because of race. You know, the kids who are victims of these mass shootings and who perpetrate them are usually white.
WEISS: They are white.
SANDERS: And the kids who experience the day-to-day, slow burn of gun violence in their communities are mostly black and brown.
WEISS: Yeah. That's true. I think race has something to do with it. But I also think it's the random occurrence of these mass shootings that...
SANDERS: It does feel like you're never safe if you...
WEISS: You - and people feel like you can't go anywhere, and you might get shot. Well, there's kids who live every day who can't go down the street.
SANDERS: Yeah. At Castlemont High, who we talked to.
SANDERS: You know, they talk about just every day knowing someone in class might have a gun.
SANDERS: Someone down the street might have a gun. Will they have to run today?
WEISS: Yeah. It's - exactly. Exactly. And yet that's one of the things I think that's so frustrating about this, is people do not understand what - I oftentimes will give people comparison about an African-American young man between the ages of 15 and 24 is more likely to be shot by a gun than almost anything else - any disease. I mean, we use more...
SANDERS: But Billie Weiss also told me that she learned in her years of researching this stuff that there are ways to address this problem. There are things that work, programs like Youth ALIVE! at Castlemont High. Weiss says those can reduce violence. Besides training young people to work as mentors, the program also connects victims of violence with counselors when they're at their most vulnerable. Like, Youth ALIVE! will often send a counselor to the ER to check in on someone just after they've been shot. In a six-month study following these victims in 2004, after they were released from the hospital, they were 70 percent less likely to be arrested again.
WEISS: Programs like Youth ALIVE! in Oakland, in Los Angeles we have the GRYD program, in Chicago they have Cure Violence. These are programs that really not only deal with the gun issue but deal with all of the other issues around the adverse childhood experiences. So a child in a stressed neighborhood, in a stressed family is much more impacted by violence they see on their streets, where a kid in an upper-middle class neighborhood has alternatives.
Kids in vulnerable neighborhoods, in vulnerable families don't have anything to make that not seem like the way it is. So you see kids who are in gangs, and I - I've known over the years a lot of kids who join gangs and who are involved in some pretty heavy violence. Youth ALIVE!, when they started, they took their kids at the most vulnerable, when they were in hospitals, after having been shot, and they began to train them to talk to other kids.
SANDERS: They would go to the ER.
WEISS: Yep. And then they reached out to the kids who had spinal cord injuries because it's always seemed to kids on the street, oh, if you get shot and killed, you become this hero...
SANDERS: You're a martyr, yeah.
WEISS: ...To your neighborhood. Well, these kids could say, what if you don't get killed? What if you just get shot, and you wind up in a wheelchair or paraplegic or a quadriplegic, and for the rest of...
SANDERS: From the age of 15 on.
WEISS: ...And the rest of your life, you have to have somebody clean up after you and help you shower and dress? And that program really had a large impact on people kind of all over the country who were looking, in the early '90s, at ways to intervene.
SANDERS: Yeah. What interventions in these communities do not work?
WEISS: Scared Straight.
SANDERS: 'Cause I - I've seen "Scared Straight!" I feel like, oh, that would work - no?
WEISS: No, no.
WEISS: At one point in time, I was asked to please take mothers of kids in gangs to the coroner's office...
SANDERS: Oh, God.
WEISS: ...To see...
SANDERS: See the dead bodies.
WEISS: ...Dead bodies. And I looked at that person, I said, do you really think a mom whose kid is in a gang doesn't know...
SANDERS: The potential.
WEISS: ...Where that's going to go? Do you really think that's going to change anything? And it's the same thing with kids. I mean, going to jail - for a kid who's running from home and running from violence, going to jail is a badge of honor. It's not a - they get to be, you know, joined with their gangs inside juvenile prisons. I mean, we're finally starting to get a little bit smarter about that. So there's a lot of things that don't work. Take the D.A.R.E. program.
SANDERS: I did D.A.R.E.
WEISS: Did you?
SANDERS: I remember the song. I remember (singing) D.A.R.E...
SANDERS: ...(Singing) To keep a kid off drugs.
SANDERS: Don't ask me if it worked on me. I'm not going to answer that.
WEISS: Well, when it finally got looked at after spending millions and millions...
WEISS: ...And millions on it - when they finally looked at it, not only did it not make any difference, the kids who had been through D.A.R.E. actually had a higher rate of drug use...
SANDERS: (Laughing) Stop it.
WEISS: ...Than those who didn't. So...
WEISS: Well, first of all, D.A.R.E. was one-time mostly, a fifth - in the fifth grade. And a cop would come into...
SANDERS: I remember.
WEISS: ...The classroom.
SANDERS: I was at Candlewood Elementary.
SANDERS: In - outside of San Antonio, Texas. And they brought those police officers into class to talk to us for D.A.R.E.
WEISS: And how long did they stay? Do you remember?
SANDERS: Oh, not too long, maybe like 30 minutes, an hour. Yeah.
WEISS: 30 minutes or an hour. And you're - you think you're going to change somebody's life in 30 minutes...
WEISS: ...Or an hour in fifth grade?
SANDERS: I asked the high school students at Castlemont, Gabriel and Ajahnay and Armon, do they think Youth ALIVE! works on the kids they mentor?
GABRIEL: I definitely think it works.
SANDERS: You think it works?
GABRIEL: Because I remember being in class when I was that age. People come in. They do presentations. It's, like, whatever. But we come into these classes, and when we talk to these kids, that's not their reaction. They raise their hands. They tell us stories about what happens in their lives. This is something that resonates with them and they have actual experience with. It's not like they're just watching a performance of something that they don't know nothing about.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
AJAHNAY: I mean, I believe they're going to be comfortable because we're here. Like, we're teenagers, you know what I'm saying?
AJAHNAY: And they're middle schoolers. They're not really going to open up to an adult. And, like, I hear, like, a lot of the stories the kids tell me. And they be shocking. I'll be like, you should not be going through that at that age. But then when we talk about, you know, what they can do to prevent it, you know, they'll come back and be like, oh, this is what I did, you know, to try, you know, to prevent this situation. You know, I cheer them on. Like, that's good, you know? Like, keep trying. Like, do some more stuff, like - you know?
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SANDERS: It's time for a break. When we come back, what the Castlemont students would say to the Parkland students right now.
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SANDERS: Most of my time with the students at Castlemont High was in a classroom. But we also went outside. I asked the students to show me where that shooting, the one where their violence prevention educator got shot - I asked them to show me where it happened. So we left the classroom. We didn't walk more than a block to be at that crime scene.
AJAHNAY: They had the yellow tape right here, and they had us all behind the yellow tape.
SANDERS: Ajahnay Cooper witnessed the shooting. She remembers being behind police tape, crying.
AJAHNAY: This my favorite person in the world. He got shot. Like I said, nobody knows what we go through until they're walking in our shoes, so...
SANDERS: When you're here now, where this shooting went down, what do you feel now on this street, on this block?
AJAHNAY: I mean, I don't really feel anything. Like we was saying earlier, we get numb.
SANDERS: The reality for these students, and many other students across the country, is that they experience a series of little Parklands all the time. It adds up. A shooting here, a close call there - it can feel like every block of your neighborhood is a reminder of the violence. And so it leaves students like Gabriel and Ajahnay and Armon conflicted. Back in the classroom, they told me, you know, on the one hand, they're grateful that America is paying more attention to gun violence after Parkland. But they want that attention perhaps focused in a different way.
How do you feel seeing those kids at Parkland get so much attention, and kids like y'all out here get a lot less?
GABRIEL: It feels like, OK - like, their experience, I know that's, like - that's terrible. I would never want to go through that. I wouldn't want to wish nobody to go through that. But, like, I think, damn, that must be one terrible time for them. We might not see all of our friends die at the same time, but we're definitely seeing people fade away to the same fate, just on multiple occasions. You're just kind of like, I just hope I make the right decisions today.
AJAHNAY: It makes me feel, like, mad, to be honest. Like, and to be honest - and if something was bad to happen out here - like, say if a kid was to get shot - they're going to make every way possible to make that person look bad. For example, the girl who was killed at MacArthur BART station, Nia Wilson, they, like, made her look bad on the news by posting her - posting pictures of her with, like, a gun and stuff like that.
ARMON: And the gun was a phone case.
AJAHNAY: Yes. It wasn't even real.
ARMON: Yeah. And they chose that picture out of every single picture that she has.
SANDERS: Nia Wilson's from the Bay Area. She was 18 when she was killed at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station platform in Oakland last year. She was stabbed to death by a stranger. After her death, a local TV station ran a photo of her holding a cellphone with a case shaped like a gun. The station later apologized. They said that image unfairly implied that Nia had a criminal background.
And that's the one thing that came through the most when I was talking to the students. They know in detail how different their lives are from a lot of other people's and how differently they're treated. Gabriel told me about how he spent some time outside of Oakland. He was going to a different school for a while in Arizona. And he said it was nothing like Castlemont.
GABRIEL: I've been in a lot of different spaces. I've moved around a lot. It's like they take it for granted.
SANDERS: They take what for granted?
GABRIEL: The life that they live.
GABRIEL: Like - yeah. Like, I've been - I lived in Arizona for a little bit, and I went to a school out there. And it's - it was completely different, the way the kids act, the way that - it's like, they don't do anything in particular. But it's like, you don't understand what you have...
AJAHNAY: Until you lose it.
GABRIEL: ...Until you lose it. And walking down the street, and everybody's all happy-go-lucky, it's like, man, you don't understand what it's like for people that don't have it like that, that are struggling every day.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
GABRIEL: It's like peeking over the fence.
SANDERS: Would you tell them that?
GABRIEL: I mean, if it comes up in conversation, I might let somebody know how I feel. But, I mean, I'm not going to try to ruin their day. I might try to educate them...
GABRIEL: ...To let them know, like, don't take for granted what you have. But it's like peeking over a fence and not being over on that side of the fence. It's like - or even if you can get over to that side of the fence, you want to take everybody with you too. And you can't.
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SANDERS: You heard from Gabriel Patten, Ajahnay Cooper and Armon Hurst. They will all graduate this spring. Gabriel wants to stay in Oakland and become a firefighter. Ajahnay hopes to attend the University of California, Irvine, or San Diego State, and she wants to be a nurse. Armon hopes to attend the University of California, San Diego, or a state college, and he wants to be a politician or a forensic scientist.
Youth ALIVE! operates programs in 10 schools in the city of Oakland. The program says it has prevented thousands of acts of violence since 1991, the year it was founded. So far this year in Oakland, nine people have died due to gun violence. That's on average a little more than one person a week.
This episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry and edited by Jordana Hochman. Thank you for listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. Talk soon.
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