Youth gun violence takes toll on Clayton

Bobby Bynum, environmental science teacher, points out the seat, where Cherish Williams used to sit in his class at Mundy’s Mill High School. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Bobby Bynum, environmental science teacher, points out the seat, where Cherish Williams used to sit in his class at Mundy’s Mill High School. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

A seat sits empty in teacher Bobby Bynum's first-period environmental science class at Mundy's Mill High School. It was where senior Cherish Williams sat, often kidding him about the homework he assigned or cheering him up if he was having a bad day.

The 18-year-old, described by her guidance counselor as “The Pulse” of the high school, was killed by three armed robbers just a few hours shy of the New Year as she sat in a local park listening to music with friends.

“I was crushed,” Bynum said when he learned of her death. “She definitely embodied what teachers would want in a student. She was very outgoing, vibrant and intuitive. It’s still difficult to take roll.”

Williams was the seventh person in Clayton County between the ages of 11 and 18 - and the second Mundy’s Mill High School student - to die by gun violence since October.

Their alleged killers? Other young people.

Clayton continues to struggle against a litany of challenges. Many of its residents are poorer, younger and more financially unstable than other parts of the region.

A recent United Way of Greater Atlanta report on the well-being of metro Atlanta’s children found that Clayton has a large number of children living in some of the most socially and economically challenging conditions in the region.

Among the findings:

- Nearly half - 45.8 percent - of the families in Clayton are financially unstable compared to 30.8 percent in the region.

- More than a third - 35.1 percent - of the children in Clayton are living in poverty. It’s one in four children in the region.

- Some 69,455 children in Clayton live in communities with “low or very low child well-being conditions.”

The rapid succession of teen deaths has rocked Clayton and unnerved even some of the most seasoned law enforcement officers.

“I have not seen this level of violence when I was with the sheriff’s department,” said Charlton Bivins, a former Clayton school board member who is retired from the DeKalb Sheriff Department. “But you have to remember, we haven’t seen our society in this state of turmoil ever. Between anti-police sentiment, a reduction of family values in our households and the lack of robust systems of care for our children, this contributes to what we’re seeing now.”

Clayton police are still sorting through the killings. A couple of the deaths involved two Riverdale High School students who died in a murder-suicide, police said.  Stanley Dixon, 16, turned himself in for the death of his Charles Drew classmate Cedric Clark. Although police have possible leads, there have been no arrests in the cases of Williams, the two siblings killed by Chattanooga gang members or the 15-year-old found dead in the front yard of a College Park home.

On average, 93 Americans are killed by firearms each day; 7 of those are young people under the age of 19, according to data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, the latest available data, 2,824 kids were killed by guns.

The Evanston, Ill publisher of a website that tracks gun fatalities in the U.S. on a daily basis called Clayton’s three-month span of youth killings “unusual.”

“The whole country of 300 million probably only had 300 kids in that age range killed during that time,” said Steve Tarzia of The Gun Memorial website. “However, it’s most likely just a statistical anomaly. I would be surprised if the trend continued. The longer it continues, the more alarmed the community should be.”

The killings have caught the attention of regional leaders.

“It’s absolutely a lot of children, which is why United Way is particularly interested and focused on what’s happening in Clayton County,” said Demetrius Jordan, United Way’s senior director of regional development. “Endemic to it all is the lack of social mobility, particularly among families and children in low-income communities.”

“Regardless of any data you put out there, children doing harm to one another is alarming and shocking,” Jordan said. “But it also presents an opportunity for community leaders, businesses, the private sector, nonprofits, religious institutions and educators to come together and improve the well-being of children, families and the community.”

Spurred by the killings, Clayton’s newest commissioner Felecia Franklin Warner announced at her first commission meeting earlier this month she would host a rally to launch a nonviolence campaign called Stand Up Clayton. The campaign is intended to bring attention to and find remedies for dealing with the recent violence.

The rally is being held from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at Independence Park, the Jonesboro park where Williams was shot.

The commissioner along with members of the Clayton police department visited Mundy’s Mill the day students returned from Christmas break. Franklin Warner, a former Suder Elementary School teacher said she is looking into whether the county has in place enough extracurricular programs for children and the cost-effectiveness of those programs.

“It’s not up to the police or school system to raise our children,” Franklin Warner said.

Bivins agreed there should be more extracurricular options for children in Clayton. He called for more “open door” programs at the local recreation centers as well as more in-school programs and community activities that team local police with kids.

“You’d have better interaction with local law enforcement and create better relationships throughout,” he said. “You wouldn’t have them at the edge of the woods smoking weed.”

“We live in a kind of community that’s volatile”

A bible sits on Mundy’s Mill High School Counselor Victoria Martin’s desk. It is her anchor in what has been a volatile school year. In addition to grieving for two other students - one who died in a car wreck and another after a long illness, students and staff are struggling with the recent violent deaths of two other students.

Senior Corey Kenny reminisced about Williams and the playfulness she brought to band class. Kenny and Williams both played trombone.

“When Cherish walked in, you knew morale was going to be up,” Kenny said. Now, the mood in class and around the school is more somber.

“It’s crazy, you know. It’s so close to graduation.”

Williams was the second gunshot victim at Mundy's Mill. The first was Daveon Coates. Martin registered the 15-year-old transfer student from Chattanooga for his classes.

"He was like somebody's little baby you'd send to school. They (the family) were regular folks," Martin recalled. Less than a month after enrolling at Mundy's Mill, Daveon Coates was dead. He and his 11-year-old sister were gunned down in their home on Oct. 22. Police say Chattanooga gang members who were looking for another 15-year-old whose family had recently been taken in by the Coates family shot the siblings.

“We live in a kind of community that’s volatile,” said Martin, who also is African Methodist Episcopal minister. Martin has been a school counselor since 1986, much of it spent in the Clayton school system. “Our community has shifted so you hear about some type of death on a regular basis.”

Martin, who counsels 12th graders and has a close relationship with many of the students, learned of Williams’ death from a text she received on New Year’s Day as she was getting ready for church. The following day, school superintendent Luvenia Jackson met with Mundy’s Mill staff to see how they were coping. On the first day back from holiday break, students returned to school where the media center had been turned into a grief room. Some 50 to 60 students visited. A pile of letters of condolences were collected for Williams’ family.

Instead of focusing on finishing up college applications, school assignments and regaining momentum after the holiday breakthe 1,800 students and staff are struggling with some of life's harshest lessons.

For some students, it’s a piling-on to their daily challenges. Many live in homes where the roles are reversed: the students are taking care of their parents and siblings. Those who seek help from the school’s guidance counselors often feel burdened beyond homework and school assignments.

“We find ourselves as quasi-parents, surrogate parents, big brother or sister,” Martin said.

Clayton Teen Deaths from Gunshots

The last three months of 2016 proved deadly for Clayton teens. Here’s a list of teenagers killed between October 4 and Dec. 31, 2016.

10/3/16 Sa’Myah Nycole Copeland 16 Riverdale High School. Shot by ex-boyfriend

10/3/16 Christopher Andrews 15 Riverdale H.S. Shot himself after killing ex-girlfriend

10/22/16 Daveon Lamontay Coates 15 Mundy’s Mill High School Shot during home invasion.

10/22/16 Tatiyana Coates 11 Pointe South Middle School Shot during home invasion.

11/1/16 Cedric Clark 17 Charles Drew H.S. Found shot in the backyard of a Riverdale home.

12/29/16 Keyontae “Jeremiah” Ross 15 North Clayton H.S. Found shot in the front yard of College Park home.

12/31/16 Cherish Williams 18 Mundy’s Mill H.S. Shot during robbery attempt at a Jonesboro Park

Source: Clayton police and news stories

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