Teen's death spurs action

Annapolis youth team up to fight crime in city

May 17, 2008|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun Reporter

Derrill Maynard is still angry.

It's been two months since his friend became the fourth homicide victim this year in Annapolis. Two months since Kwame Travon Johnson, a 17-year-old junior at Annapolis High School, was shot and bled to death on a sidewalk in the troubled public housing community where he lived. Two months since they'd hung out, watching Lil Wayne rap videos on a portable DVD player and teasing neighborhood girls.

He's still angry because Kwame was the second friend he has lost to street violence. He says he's sick of hearing gunshots at night and doesn't feel safe in the Robinwood neighborhood where he lives and Kwame was killed.

The 19-year-old senior is trying to work through his anger and fear in an anti-crime group formed at Annapolis High in the weeks after Kwame's death. What started out as a support group of sorts has become part of a budding youth movement to combat crime in the capital city of 36,000 - which has had six homicides this year, nearly double the per capita homicide rate of Baltimore.

"Losing Funk - it scared me for real," Derrill said at a recent meeting of the group, FUNK, Kwame's nickname and loose acronym that stands for "Family and friends together Unified for success Non violent action Knowledge and growth.""I found out about this group and I wasn't sure how it would be, but I know violence ain't the way you gotta solve an issue. So I think this group can make the difference."

FUNK's members are planning to participate in a citywide unity march today to spread a message of peace through nine Annapolis public housing and low-income communities, where crime has been concentrated. The march is being organized by community leaders.

The students also plan to attend a city government-sponsored youth meeting Thursday to discuss crime in their neighborhoods and how the city can help. The group's work is also being linked to a schoolwide anti-bullying campaign also named FUNK, after Kwame. Members are decorating Kwame's locker and transforming it into a tip box for anonymous reports on bullying, fights and other concerns about school violence.

"We can't just let the adults take care of everything, they need to hear from us," said Natalie Black, a sophomore. "It's our friends who are getting killed. We're the ones afraid of not getting to 21. We are the ones committing the crimes, too, so we are the ones that need to get out there and start making our voices be heard."

A 17-year-old Robinwood boy was charged with first- and second-degree murder, two counts of assault, reckless endangerment and two handgun violations in the March 16 death of Kwame.

FUNK's efforts join a broader initiative that intensifies the city's focus on violent residents, increases police patrols, lighting and security cameras in public housing communities and funds mentoring programs for youths. The program, which grows out of a coalition of local, state and federal authorities, is being considered a model that can be duplicated across the state.

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer has included more than $1 million in new money in her 2009 budget proposal to fund public safety and said the youths' efforts are key to lowering the city's crime rate.

"Youth is where our strength is," she said. "I remember when I was in high school, if there was an after-school community program we wanted, the students would work to line it up. But somewhere along the way, society has killed that kind of youth initiative. I'm happy to see there's an environment here that's allowing for that youth activity to resurface."

Kwame's killing jarred the city. It prompted the mayor to consider - and later abandon - a citywide youth curfew proposal and spurred a city alderwoman to suggest bringing in the National Guard to keep the peace.

Meanwhile, FUNK's members, some of whom live in the public housing being condemned as dens of crime, say they see a city struggling to reconcile two worlds. One has million-dollar waterfront homes and swanky boutiques and restaurants on picturesque brick streets; the other has dilapidated low-income communities suffering from years of splintered public safety efforts and an entrenched mistrust among residents, the police and security.

At a recent meeting, students huddled in small committees and discussed plans to create a mural dedicated to Kwame, cultivate a peace garden outside the school and organize a peace concert. The bell for first-period rang and interrupted their discussion, and they all begged Assistant Principal Sheila Hill for 10 more minutes. She shook her head no. There were government and math classes to get to, she said.

But Hill couldn't be more thrilled with the way the students have begun to drive the agenda for this group. She has watched FUNK grow from a few dozen students to about 150. She has watched them change from students who said that nothing they did would matter to students who proudly wear bracelets emblazoned with the words: "Kwame's legacy - education = empowerment."

This is as important to her as it is to them. Kwame had been in her "intensive care unit," a group of juniors and seniors at risk of not graduating. Kwame was a soft-spoken, conscientious boy who was talented in sketching and drawing. But he also had a habit of skipping school. Every morning, after she called her own two children at home to make sure they were up and getting ready for school, she also called Kwame to make sure he was doing the same.

He hadn't answered her wake-up calls on Monday, March 17. She figured he was trying to dodge her. She didn't know he had become another homicide victim the night before.

"To do this in his honor is so important," she said. "But what's great is that the students are slowly realizing it's bigger than him, broader than him. It's about making this place a better place to live and realizing that they have a stake in making that happen."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.