An 11-year-old boy in San Francisco made headlines early last year when a shooting near his Western Addition home left a random bullet lodged permanently in his abdomen. Nerve damage, a ruptured bladder and chronic pain kept him out of school for more than four months.
For a brief moment after the shooting, the boy, who was 9 at the time, became the city’s latest example of how violence touches vulnerable young people. The fifth-grader spoke out against gun violence on local television and the steps of City Hall. He returned to Bessie Carmichael Elementary School last fall.
Then in February, the boy turned from the victim to the accused.
School administrators kicked him out of Bessie Carmichael for allegedly shooting another student in the face with a BB gun. He denied having a BB gun and shooting his classmate but admitted to carrying a plastic pellet gun in his backpack. The victim in the case was hit in the upper right cheek but was not seriously injured.
Although the facts are in dispute, the boy’s situation illustrates the San Francisco Unified School District’s haphazard struggle to fulfill complex health and safety mandates: Prevent violence, nurture victims and deal with inner-city trauma when it spills into the classroom.
While the district is responsible for keeping children safe, it’s also required to address the needs of students who exhibit risky or even violent behaviors. In the case of the boy at Bessie Carmichael, it failed to do both, records and interviews show.
A Bay Citizen review of violence prevention programs for youth in San Francisco revealed a web of services, mostly provided by city-funded nonprofit groups working in neighborhoods and, sometimes, schools. Even so, Shawn Richard, founder and executive director of Brothers Against Guns, said there are not enough resources to reach all of the kids who need help.
“The school district needs to partner up with organizations that deal with these issues in the communities instead of kicking a kid out of school with no counseling or services,” said Richard, whose group has a limited arrangement to work with students in the district. “But right now, we’re not at enough schools where we can do intervention.”
The district employs roughly 60 social workers and therapists to work in the city’s roughly 120 elementary and middle schools, but Andi Hilinski, who oversees the team, says that’s not enough to address the emotional needs of all students.
“Our department stance is that every school should have a full-time social worker and full-time nurse,” she said.
Despite limited resources, anti-violence experts say, schools remain the best places to help students from broken homes and violent neighborhoods get support.
In a study titled “Mitigating the Effects of Gun Violence on Children and Youth,” researchers at Cornell University said schools were “the most promising avenue for successful identification of and therapeutic intervention for exposed and victimized youth.”
California’s policy on weapons and “dangerous objects” in schools is strict – one strike and the student is referred for expulsion, unless the principal deems the action inappropriate. The state also allows districts to expel students for threatening to injure others.
The Cornell researchers noted that banning students who make threats “may actually exacerbate the danger by inflaming students who are already at risk for violent activity.”
District officials said they were aware of 30 incidents this past school year in K-12 grades involving some type of gun – toys, BB guns, replicas or actual firearms – up from 22 the year before. The district would not say how many of those students were referred for expulsion, but the state Department of Education said four students in San Francisco were expelled for violations involving firearms during the 2010-11 school year.
Self-reporting by students indicates that they’re bringing more weapons to school than administrators would otherwise know. In a 2011 district survey of more than 2,200 high school students, 5.8 percent reported carrying a weapon on school property. More than 7 percent said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon in the past school year.
San Francisco police Officer Lois Perillo, a liaison to public schools, said reported gun incidents on campuses were rare, but districts nationwide have been under pressure since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.
“After that tragedy happened, many jurisdictions around the country made revisions to the education code,” she said, “and that’s when zero tolerance for weapons came to bear.”
Not a clear-cut case
By all accounts, the 11-year-old boy, Tori, has experienced significant trauma in his life. Between being shot and being suspended, he has missed more than seven months of classes since January 2011.
As he sat home last semester, his mother, Sabrina Carter, worried that he could wind up in the “school-to-prison pipeline” through which she has seen so many other boys in the neighborhood pass.
“If they feel like the school is turning on them, that’s when they end up hanging around on the streets doing things they have no business doing,” Carter said.
District officials declined to discuss Tori’s case, citing confidentiality. The Bay Citizen chose not to use Tori’s full name because of his age and to protect his privacy. He and his mother have different last names. The family of the victim declined to be interviewed for this story.
After a district investigation failed to prove Tori shot his classmate, an expulsion panel decided not to remove him from the district. But administrators at Bessie Carmichael refused to allow him back, contending that Tori had threatened his classmates, who were then scared to tell the truth about the incident.
Regardless of guilt or innocence in such cases, said Aliya Sheriff, a psychologist at the 3rd Street Youth Center and Clinic in the Bayview district, teachers and school administrators should be better trained to address not just student behavior, but also the underlying causes of it.
“Our schools are not trained to respond to trauma,” said Sheriff, who is not involved with Tori’s case. “Kids often act out what they’re going through in play, and teachers need to learn how to break it down. To me, it looks like a real cry for help, and I’ve seen that a lot.”
Much of the evidence in Tori’s case comes from the recollection of elementary school students, and the facts are murky.