Fears of summer gun violence became a reality last weekend when gunfire erupted on the grounds of Benjamin E. Mays High School early Sunday morning.
Atlanta Police report two 16-year-olds were shot at about 2:30 a.m. and Bre’Asia Powell, a junior at Mays, later died of her injuries at the hospital. A male victim remains hospitalized.
In 911 calls reviewed by GPB News, a frantic, young voice tells the operator, “It was a shootout at Mays… at the party.”
“Our kids with these guns,” Nicole Williams, Bre’Asia’s mother said, telling the large crowd gathered at a memorial event Wednesday at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Southwest Atlanta to take responsibility for what’s happening with guns, including making them available to children. “Passing these guns out, selling to these kids, and look what they are doing, pulling up just shooting, innocent … anybody.”
Williams described Bre’Asia as someone who could “do it all — basketball, volleyball, cheerleader.” She was active in many activities at the recreation center.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens joined the balloon release. He prayed for the family, calling Bre’Asia and her family role models and contributors to the community.
Council member Michael Julian Bond participated in the balloon release and later called the event a “call to action.”
“This has happened too often in our city that we mourn the loss of a young person,” Bond said. “The mayor is right. God doesn’t make mistakes. There needs to be an action provoked by this tragedy. God called her (Bre’Asia) home, but what do we do, those who remain, to save the rest, to impact the rest?”
Looking for solutions
The Gun Violence Archive has reported 2,666 deaths and injuries of children 17 and under attributed to gun violence nationally so far in 2023. A mass shooting at a Nashville private school in March prompted one Gwinnett County gun store owner to close his business. The number of teens killed or injured by guns in the U.S. rose from 2,883 in 2018 to 5,157 in 2022.
School summer break means idle time and idle minds, and some metro Atlanta leaders worry that combination will lead to a continued increase in gun violence among teens.
“What we find is that when their time is free and idle, they’ll listen to those voices that will cause them to lean toward gang activity, toward making bad decisions,” said Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage, one of the organizers of “Summer of Peace” rallies to try to curb youth violence.
Elected officials, law enforcement, court systems and community groups in Fulton County are looking for ways to help teens stay busy and resolve conflict peacefully. Providing jobs and sports activities, like the city of Atlanta’s midnight basketball league, can help.
For a second consecutive year, Gammage, Judge Kenya Johnson, Chief Judge of the Probate Court of Fulton County, and Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat have partnered to take anti-gun messages to area schools. This year they held assemblies at Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington high schools and in Fulton County at Langston Hughes and Tri-Cities high schools. Music influencers such as rapper T.I. headline the events to capture teens’ attention.
A 17-year-old Washington High School student who talked to GPB News about her fears said, “I’ve lived through gun violence. In the neighborhood before. It’s not fun. It’s very scary. Conflict plays a very big role in my community with guns, knives and anything. I know a lot of people that love guns. They fantasize (about) guns, only because of what they grew up around. All they know is violence and guns. Only because of the neighborhood they come from. That’s all most of the kids here know.”
“We’re concerned about our young people here in Atlanta,” Johnson said. “Young people … have reason to be afraid of each other because young youth gun violence is prevalent.”
The principals at the high schools welcomed the programs.
“None of our young people that are involved in violence or gun violence were born to do that,” said William C. Wade, Principal of Atlanta’s Washington High School. “They didn’t come out as a 2-year-old saying ‘I’m going to be impacted,’ or ‘I’m going to shoot somebody with gun violence.’ It’s a decision that you have to make.”
Gammage said the events offer teens messages focused on hope, restoration, healing, peace, and “anti-gun violence, and then the component of having summer jobs available.”
“The prospect of making money in a summer job also engages the students’ thanks to partnerships with the Atlanta Labor Council, WorkSource Georgia, the city of Atlanta, and other area employers. One of the jobs (opportunities), through the Labor Department will actually pay up to $25 an hour during the summer and teach young people a trade,” Gammage said.
The Washington High School student agrees that jobs will help students avoid trouble.
“That (jobs) will make a difference because people do weird stuff for money these days,” she said. “They do a lot to make money. It’s not good money, either. So, to help them keep money or them to get a job to make money, that’s a really big opportunity.”
Wade also encourages students to take advantage of free, virtual mental health services at the school to help students deal with issues involving conflict and anxiety, stress, and depression that might lead some of them to act out violently.
The Atlanta Public School system provides each school with free access to Hazel Health for students.
“It brings tele-health mental health services to our students, if they ask, for every student,” Wade said. “It’s available for every student they can go in. We have the iPads, set up the computers, and they have live therapists ready and willing to serve them just by appointment.”
According to Wade, the mental health service is also available to students during the summer, if needed.
This story comes to Rough Draft Atlanta through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.