'It feels like nowhere is safe': St. Louis children confront a wave of gun violence

Eleven children have been victims of homicides in St. Louis since April. Most were age 10 or younger. “I have not seen anything like this," a school official said.

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Anita Hassan

Mason Wilson learned through some school friends about the July 19 shooting at a house in central St. Louis, not far from where his grandmother lives. It wasn’t the first shooting Mason, 9, heard about this year, but it was the one he thought about the most.

The boy who was killed, 10-year-old Eddie Hill IV, had been standing on the porch with his father at about 8:30 p.m. when shots were fired from a passing SUV. Eddie, who was so smart, relatives told reporters, that he’d skipped a grade, was hit in the chest.

More than a month later, the shooting was still on Mason’s mind. He often went to his grandmother’s house after school. It could have been him or one of his siblings, Mason said. The boy was around his age. He was black, too. He hadn’t done anything wrong.

“It makes me sad, and it makes me worried a lot,” Mason, a fourth grader, said Tuesday evening in an interview. “I guess this is all happening around close to where I am.”

Shardae Edmondson, 11, is consoled by her mother, Sharonda Edmondson, and sister Zha'lea Thompson, 7, during a vigil for murdered children in St. Louis held at Herzog Elementary School in the city Aug. 28, 2019. Shardae's and Zha'lea's sister Jurnee Thompson, 8, was killed by a stray bullet Friday night.David Carson / St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

Mason tried to continue to speak, but his voice broke. He buried his face in his mother’s arms.

“It’s OK to be upset,” his mother, LaToya Wilson, told him. Of her four children, Mason was her “can do” kid. It surprised her to see him so emotional. “You’re being really brave by talking about your feelings.”

Eleven children have been victims of homicides in St. Louis since April, according to police. Six were 10 or younger; the youngest was 2. An additional two suspicious deaths of children are under investigation.

Many St. Louis residents are feeling the weight of the violence, but it has particularly affected the city’s children, according to parents, school officials and nonprofit leaders. This summer, they walked past makeshift memorials lined with candles and teddy bears. They started the school year missing classmates who would not return. Some have begun organizing protests against gun violence and other efforts to draw the attention of city officials.

By this week, many students seemed overwhelmed, said Megan Marietta, director of social work services for St. Louis Public Schools, where six of the victims were enrolled. Marietta, who has sent social-work support teams to four schools in the past three weeks, said this year has been especially difficult for the staff because so many of the victims have been so young.

“I have not seen anything like this in my 10 years with the district,” Marietta said.

Clockwise from top left: Eddie Hill IV, 10; Kennedi Powell, 3; Jason Eberhart, 16; and Xavier Usanga, 7.

Prosecutors have accepted charges in just one of this year’s 11 child homicides as of Thursday evening. Over the weekend, city officials and law enforcement announced $100,000 in total reward money for information leading to arrests in four of the recent deaths.

Gun violence is not new to St. Louis. The historically segregated city of about 300,000 has had one of the highest murder rates among similarly sized cities for several years, according to FBI statistics. Residents blame racially biased policing and a lack of social services. Police say they aren’t getting enough information to make arrests, while some state lawmakers and St. Louis’ lead prosecutor have called for changes to Missouri’s lax gun laws.

Tensions between the community and police have fed a deep mistrust, residents and community activists say. In 2017, protests erupted after a white former St. Louis police officer was acquitted in the fatal 2011 shooting of a black man.

But what’s happening this year is worse than anything the city has recently seen. According to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, eight children were shot dead from the start of June through Aug. 19. For the same period in 2018, two children were killed, and in 2017, five were.

Just over the weekend, three more children were killed.

Jurnee Thompson, 8, was shot Friday night after a fight broke out at a football jamboree. Jurnee, whose father called her an old soul who loved to help her family, was standing in the parking lot near Soldan High School when she was hit, KMOV reported.

Jurnee Thompson, 8, was killed by a stray bullet after a high school football jamboree in St. Louis on Aug. 23, 2019.Family photo

On Saturday, Nyla Banks, 10, who relatives called “Nana the dancer” because of her love of dance, was found dead along with her parents inside their loft, according to KSDK-TV. Police said the victims had “numerous puncture wounds.”

Then, early Sunday morning, police found Sentonio Cox, 15, dead from a gunshot wound just blocks from his home. During a vigil on Tuesday, his twin brother said Sentonio was “everything I had,” according to the Post-Dispatch. On Thursday,a 54-year-old man was charged in connection with Sentonio's death.

The relentless violence has left many children feeling numb, said Marietta, the social work services director.

“It doesn’t have to be a part of a quote-unquote ‘normal childhood experience’ to bury friends, to bury brothers and sisters due to gun violence,” Marietta said. “And that is the reality for so many of our children.”

On Friday, the same night Jurnee was shot, Michael Simmons, 15, attended a football jamboree at another St. Louis high school, Parkway North. At about 8:15 p.m., he heard gunshots inside the stadium, and the crowd surged toward the exit.

No one was injured. Still, the gunfire left Michael, a ninth grader at a high school just outside the city limits, uneasy.

“It’s scary to think that you have to worry at a high school football game,” he said. “It feels like nowhere is safe anymore.”

The next morning, Michael said he woke up with a strong feeling that God wanted him to speak out against gun violence in his hometown. He began contacting community leaders about organizing a rally, and he hopes to eventually start a longer-term project. Most important, he wants to mobilize other teens to urge their peers to stop resolving conflicts with guns.

“We need to hear the message that it’s not OK,” Michael said. “And it needs to come from young people to young people, but also adults.”

Even younger children are taking their voices to elected officials. In July, 170 elementary school children, including Mason Wilson, took buses to City Hall to speak with St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and the president of the Board of Aldermen. The children brought letters describing their fears and proposing solutions, such as stricter gun laws. Their slogan, which they came up with themselves: “The only shooting that should happen should be on a basketball court.”

On Wednesday, Krewson said she would push for Missouri state lawmakers to allow St. Louis to require concealed-carry permits for guns, the Post-Dispatch reported.

Krewson’s office said she was not available for comment this week.

The Rev. Starsky Wilson, CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, a child well-being philanthropic organization that planned the student trip to City Hall, said it was important for elected officials to see the faces of the children who are being affected by violence.

“The moral case is lost when you don’t have to look the children in the face,” said Wilson, who is Mason’s father.

LaToya Wilson, Mason’s mother, a dentist who works with underinsured children at a hospital, worries that her son will be traumatized by the city’s violence, but she also does not want to sugarcoat the issues at stake.

“I want him to use his voice,” she said, “no matter how small, small but mighty.”

On Tuesday evening, Mason said that what he wants the most is for people to stop hurting kids.

“And stop taking people’s lives,” he said.

The boy put his head in his hands and began to cry again. LaToya Wilson held her son.

“Just because it doesn’t look like you’re winning, doesn’t mean you give up,” she told him. “I don’t want you to feel hopeless just because something is happening that we don’t like. If we don’t like it, we have to change it.”

Mason looked up into her eyes and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”