With its colorful box-style buildings with big windows, Castlemont High in Oakland, Calif., looks like any other school. But inside, teacher Demetria Huntsman and Joseph Hopkins, 16, are deconstructing a shooting that happened out front just 30 minutes before.
“We just, like, heard gunshots,” Joseph explains. “We just … turned around and started running. That’s the closest I’ve ever came to almost, like, actually getting shot.”
Saturday marks the first anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The 26 lives lost that day sparked a national debate on gun violence. A year later, the issue still looms large in many communities, including those where shootings are a daily occurrence.
In the Castlemont neighborhood, homicide is the leading cause of death for young people. And according to the Oakland Police Department, there was an average of three shootings a day between March and October within 1.5 miles of Castlemont High, including one last April when bullets came through the front door.
Today, Huntsman, Joseph and several other students are gathered at Castlemont High as part of the after-school group Youth ALIVE!, one of many violence prevention programs serving the neighborhood.
“If I can wake up one day, walk outside, with the possibility of being shot at any point in time, that’s kind of nerve-wracking every day to do,” says Trevor Watson, 14, one of the youngest members of the group. “You can be at the most safest place that you think, and then some type of violence busts out.”
‘A Wake-Up Call’
In spite of the violence, kids this reporter talked to say Castlemont High is one of the few places they feel safe, in part because of programs designed to help students cope with regular shootings — maybe even prevent them.
“It’s up to adults and professionals to help [kids] understand and process it and respond to it appropriately, so it can be a tool for learning and growth,” says Alex Briscoe, director of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency.
The life expectancy for residents in this area, he explains, is 10 years shorter than that of people living in upscale Oakland Hills just over a mile away. “We can tell you how long you’re going to live by what zip code you live in,” Briscoe says.
Across the street from Castlemont High, about 20 kids ranging from toddlers to teens run, climb and squeal at a playground on a chilly Saturday morning as three security guards in bright yellow shirts look on.
The group, East Oakland Community Playdate, has been meeting here once a month for the past several years. Parents who participate know the neighborhood has its problems with violence. In April, there was a shooting near the playground and the families had to take cover.
Paolo, 6, was among them. His mother, Stephanie Pepitone, the organizer of the play group, says that she’s dedicated to the neighborhood and wants to stay. But the shooting was still a wake-up call for her family, she says.
“In the same way that we teach all our children about fire safety — to ‘stop, drop and roll’ — it was the first time that we realized we had to do the same kind of safety training with our son, in terms of what happens when you hear gunshots,” Pepitone says.
‘It Doesn’t Even Affect Me Anymore’
Sitting on the steps in front of his apartment, Trevor Watson says the popping sounds of gunfire sometimes keep him up at night — but that he tries to ignore it. “I see stuff like that so often it doesn’t even affect me anymore,” he says.
But that stoic facade drops when a kid walks into the courtyard. He’s holding something under his shirt. Watson’s booming voice drops to a whisper. The kid has a gun, he says.
Watson explains he glimpsed the telltale handle of a gun when the kid was adjusting his clothing.
Even if you want to, you can’t afford to ignore guns here. Just two hours after this reporter left, seven men were shot just blocks from Watson’s house. No arrests have been made.