CEDAR RAPIDS — The physical confrontations 16-year-old Amelia Barnes has seen in her high school leave her feeling uneasy and on edge.
Tasked with addressing a problem in their community, she and her classmates at Washington High School chose to launch a campaign to “stop the violence” at the Cedar Rapids school.
“It’s OK to stand up for something and not just be a bystander,” Barnes said.
Fights among students have been more disruptive at Washington High School recently, students, teachers and administrators said. It is hoped a student-driven push for peace will resonate with their peers, said teacher Sarah Dollmeyer.
“It’s easier when it comes from here,” Dollmeyer said, as her students signed a non-violence pledge. “When it comes from an adult, an adult can keep telling you over and over not to do something wrong. But if it comes from your peers and your peers are on board, there’s going to be more support.”
The students in her project-based iJAG class — Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates — plan to take their pledge to the entire student body and sell “end the violence” T-shirts they designed.
“It’s kind of sad because there are other ways to resolve your problems,” Iyanna Batte, 17, said of the uptick in fights. “Everyone’s a good person. They could do better than involving themselves in those actions.”
Another iJAG class, taught by Monica Hamilton, is in the midst of an informational campaign about how students react to altercations at school. Hamilton’s students conducted a survey of 400 that found about half of their peers had chosen to cheer on a fight.
“Be different,” a poster in the hallway urged. “Tell an adult.”
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The idea to raise awareness about violence at school and after class, Batte said, “started with gang violence, and the police in Cedar Rapids not realizing there is gang violence.”
“We are emblematic of our city,” Washington High School Associate Principal Darius Ballard said. “I would say we do have violence. It’s maybe a tick higher this year overall.”
Ballard said fights among students “may be based on affiliations,” but he does not think most are gang-affiliated.
“It almost always is this slow simmer that finally reaches a boiling point, and there’s a fire,” Ballard said. “The sad thing is, and I think this is pretty normal in our community, one fight doesn’t settle it anymore. Students — like adults, in some cases — don’t let it go.”
Work is underway in the Cedar Rapids Police Department to address gun violence, especially among young people. The Cedar Rapids Police Department three years ago formed the Police Community Action Team, a unit that emphasizes relationship building and targets problem offenders and areas in the city.
It seized 33 illegal guns in 2018, Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said, and “identified a number of members of hybrid gangs who have been responsible for a majority of violent crimes.”
Violence in any community can seep into its schools. In October, a 16-year-old boy took a loaded handgun gun to Washington High School. No one was injured.
His arrest on campus followed a number of shootings involving Cedar Rapids teenagers in recent years.
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In August, Malachi Handley, 17, was sentenced to a decade in prison for shooting a 14-year-old boy at a Cedar Rapids laundromat in March 2016. Two other boys, both 15, faced charges related to the shooting in Juvenile Court.
In September 2016, Ireshia Parks, 13, was fatally shot in the head when she was sitting in a car in southeast Cedar Rapids with five other teenagers. A 13-year-old was charged with involuntary manslaughter in that case.
During one weekend in March 2016, Senquez Jackson, 15, died less than 24 hours after being shot by Dennis Warren, 13. The day after Jackson was shot, Kenyauta Vesey-Keith, 16, shot Brandon Johnson, 21, and a 16-year-old during a fight. Johnson died of his injuries.
In September 2015, Robert Humbles, then 14, shot and killed Aaron Richardson, 15.
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