In Newark schools, coping with violence a tragic matter of routine

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on November 20, 2014

Rayvon Lisbon of Newark sits in front of Weequahic High School. Now a senior at Rutgers-Newark Lisbon said the violence he witnessed both inside and outside the school nearly derailed his education.

 

NEWARK — By the time Rayvon Lisbon began his senior year at Weequahic High School, he had lost more classmates and acquaintances than he could count.

Over a four-month period, four of his closest friends were killed—the latest victims of the all-too-common gun violence that plagues much of the city.

Not far away, 13-year-old Michael (whose name is being withheld for the family's safety)—whose 21-year-old brother was arrested and charged with the murder of a rival gang member—lives in fear with his six siblings and mother for his brother's alleged involvement in the slaying.

In the third deadliest city in America, life for the young on the streets of Newark is a daily fight for survival.

And for children especially in many of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, brushes with violence and murder have become a tragic rite of passage—one that regularly breaches the halls of the area’s schools and forces teachers and school administrators to confront a formidable enemy to education.

“In Newark, death becomes normalized,” said Rashawn Davis, a 22-year-old who grew up in the Georgia King Village housing project in the city’s West Ward, but went on to graduate from Georgetown University. “It’s something to be expected. And if you haven’t experienced death or haven’t experienced someone who has died, it’s almost an anomaly.”

A total of 35 teenagers between 13 and 18 have been murdered in Newark since students returned to class in September 2009—including 12 since August 2013. Countless others have been wounded by shootings, stabbings and other assaults, according to the Essex County Prosecutor’s office.

The last school year has been the bloodiest of all, with 12 school-age teenagers slain in the city since August 2013. And that count may climb higher still in the weeks to come, when medical examiners determine how the mutilated body of 17-year-old Westside High School student Brenda Keith ended up abandoned in an empty lot.

For the murdered teens, no official record is kept of where they attended school, or if they were even going to school. Some were pursuing GEDs or may have dropped out altogether. But many were students at Weequahic, West Side High School, University High School and others located in the some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

“Not only do I have to act as a teacher, but I act as a grief counselor, a confidante. Inner-city teachers wear many hats to help these kids cope with violent situations,” said Bashir Akinyele, a long-time teacher at Weequahic High School and leader of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition.

Of those murdered still going to school, many had already been lost, sucked into the city’s violent culture. Teachers and other school employees say signs that some students’ affiliations with street gangs begin to appear as early as fifth or sixth grade.

Others were mere innocents, dedicated students with clean records shot to death over an iPhone, or struck by a wayward bullet while taking out the garbage.

At the same time, administrators say an act of violence committed against a student has the ability to send shock waves through the hallways of any school, and often sends teachers and other adults scrambling to help them cope with the collateral damage.

For Gemar Mills, principal at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, interpreting the effects of violence on his students is an almost daily task, often detected through subtle changes in behavior such as a shortened attention span or unusually disheveled appearance.

“Some students, depending on what they’ve been through, they’ve become numb to some things. But you can always see their emotions,” he said. “When it hits home, it hits home, and they can’t hold it in.”

Like so many of those closest to the violence, the mean streets of Newark changed everything for Michael and his family.

Though the family maintains his innocence, the arrest of Michael’s brother brought on harassment and threats of retaliation from the victim’s friends and family, forcing them to flee their home.

Violence is no stranger to the 13-year-old boy. When he was nine, the house where he lived in Newark's South Ward was hit by a hail of bullets.

When asked about his first experience of loss, Michael betrays little emotion – speaking as matter-of-factly about an older neighborhood boy shot in the head as other children might recall their first summer camp.

He and other children his age often prefer to stay inside. Though lined with multi-family homes, the streets in his neighborhood can often seem desolate, deserted aside from pockets of men gathered on storefronts and street corners.

Weathered billboards that line the walls of corner stores implore residents to help them solve any of the countless murders that have taken place there, while nearby stop signs are used as beacons for the gangs that carry them out.

Michael’s mother has withdrawn five of her seven children from school for fear they will be attacked or killed, and is attempting to have them transferred to districts outside the city. Michael, meanwhile, has been homeschooled since sixth grade after a number of behavioral issues including confrontations with teachers, said his mother.

“I’m watching flowers die. That’s what I’m watching,” she said sadly. “You hate to have to put your kids in a situation where they have to fight, but it’s one or two types of people out here—you’re predator or prey.”

The neighborhoods surrounding Shabazz and many of the city’s other public and charter schools serve as regular settings for drug deals, robberies and even murders, any of which can turn a student into a witness, or worse, a victim.

In late 2012, two female students at the school were shot outside a basketball game at Essex County College. One suffered a collapsed lung. The other was shot in the leg—a wound that still affects her ability to walk.

On Christmas 2013, Zainee Hailey emerged from her family’s apartment on Schley Street carrying garbage bags—some filled with the paper that had wrapped Kindle Fire and other presents she and her three siblings opened earlier that day.

But as she brought the bags to their usual spot on the street, shots rang out. Another teen had taken offense to a boy’s perceived advances on his girlfriend, and opened fire.

Hailey and 15-year-old Kasson Mormon were struck and killed Abdul Frazier, a 14-year-old also caught in the hail of bullets, died in the hospital three weeks later.

Nearly one in three students in Newark schools will fail to graduate - a trend teachers and administrators say is at least partially due to their struggle to keep students on track in an environment where even the most dedicated student may find it hard to envision a way out.

Lisbon, shuttled between foster homes for most of his youth, a mother and father addicted to drugs, and an affiliation with a local set of the Crips street gang, seemed like he would be one of them.

Lisbon had defied the odds to become one of the top students in his class. He was on track to attend Seton Hall University with the help of a scholarship, before reality struck, as he watched friend after friend gunned down.

“Four months straight. One after one after one after one,” he said, as if living through it all again. “It took my psyche to another place. It kind of made me realize the type of area and the type of environment I really was living in.”

Lisbon went on to finish high school, but scrapped his Seton Hall plans as he wrangled with the emotional toll the string of losses had taken. While he dabbled in community college classes, he said it took years to again devote himself to his education and future.

“It was hard to see a future for myself. Being from the inner city, being involved in the streets. It felt like there was a black cloud over me and my neighborhood that I couldn’t escape,” he said. “It’s hard to regroup. I’ve seen a lot of my friends in a box in a suit, and it happens so often, you don’t really get a chance to regroup.”

Still, others do find their way, despite the odds against them.

Davis said his first brush with street violence came not long after he had learned to tie his own shoes, when a close friend and classmate was killed in a car outside a local business. An intoxicated man, convinced the car belonged to his recently estranged girlfriend, rammed it at full speed, killing Davis’s young friend and his brother.

“That was one of those first experiences that I’ve had like wow, this is the reality of our city. It really sort of changed the way I view just how valuable our lives were,” he said.

In the years to come, as he progressed through middle school and eventually landed at University High School, brought no relief, as he returned after each summer to a list of classmates who would not be returning. Many of the deaths were met with little to no reaction at all.

Davis left the city to go to college in Washington, D.C., eventually returning home and becoming the youngest person ever to have his name on the ballot for Municipal Council.

Lisbon severed his affiliation with the street gang he once considered family, although he still lives in the South Ward and sees his former cohorts often.

At 25, he is now a senior at Rutgers-Newark, primed to receive his degree in sociology.

“I felt like everything in life is written, its not coincidence, or incidental,” he reamarked. “I didn’t want to lose my life to the streets.”

After receiving his diploma, he plans to begin studying for law school.

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