Josiah Jennings is a rising 11th grader at Hillside High School. 

He was one of a handful of nearly two dozen high school students who performed in State of Urgency, a theater production that addressed the impact of gun violence in their lives. The personable teen wants to attend college to study film and television. He says the ongoing specter of youth gun violence can be “devastating and traumatic” for him and his peers.

“It is important to have some type of mental health assistance to make sure people can get the help they need in our community and nationwide as well,” Jennings says. 

While witnessing and living with the grim reality of their peers getting caught in the line of gunfire, Durham’s young people are hurting, and they are asking the community for mental health tools to help them process the impact of gun violence.

“It can break a person down, but I think there’s hope for people to be helped,” Jennings adds.

The Bull City has borne witness to the awful pageantry of gun violence that has stolen the lives of children in communities all over the country.

One year ago this month, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation reported that firearms are now the number one cause of death for children and teens in the United States, surpassing motor vehicle deaths and those caused by other injuries.

Two more children were gunned down in Durham last week.

The 15-year-old girl survived the shooting. 

The five-year-old girl died.

There used to be a time when, if a five-year-old was shot and killed, the world would stand up and take notice. Nowadays, it’s just another Wednesday. 

In recent months, the public conversation about youth gun violence in Durham has shifted from prevention to how it may be affecting young people’s mental health.

Child psychologists say that children who are exposed to gun violence may experience post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety along with diminished school performance, increased absenteeism, and difficulty concentrating. 

Charnequa Kennedy is director of counseling services at NC Central University. She previously worked with a nonprofit focused on youth development.

Kennedy says a major concern for mental health providers are the increasing numbers of young people exposed to violence who experience trauma without the opportunity to process the incidents. She adds that because of the frequency of gunfire, people have become desensitized.

“That in itself is a traumatic response that should be addressed,” Kennedy says. 

She adds that the biggest concern for children and young adults exposed to gun violence is for their safety, both physically and psychologoically. 

Kennedy says that symptoms related to experiences involving gunfire include anger, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues. 

Aniyah Lowe, 18, recently graduated from Hillside and will attend NC Agricultural and Technical University to pursue a degree in journalism.

“A lot of times, when tragic things happen, we really don’t know how [gun violence] affects us until we talk about it,” Lowe says. “I didn’t know it affected me at all until I spoke about it.”

Kelyse Raiyel, 18, just graduated from the Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College High School at NC Central University’s campus. Raiyel says it’s important to focus on mental health and acknowledge it.

“In today’s society, our youth(s) are getting more than we should,” she says. “We see a lot of violence, a lot of hate. We need to find some unity.”

Here in Durham, police report that of the 20 homicides investigated by detectives this year, roughly one-quarter of the shooting victims have been 19 or younger.

Anthony Feaster, 17, was fatally shot on the American Tobacco Trail near Riddle Road on February 8. 

The next month, on March 22, two 16-year-olds, Angel Canales and Osmar Banegas, were found mortally wounded near the intersection of Buchanan Boulevard and Leon Street near Brogden Middle School.

On April 13, Keydren Pettiford, 17, was shot to death in the 700 block of Carter Avenue.

 On May 25, police found Zion Craig Bowden, 19, fatally wounded in the 300 block of Ganyard Farm Way.

There have been 455 shootings in Durham through June 24, according to the Durham Police Department. By comparison, last year during that same time period there were 370 reports of criminal gunfire, and 389 in 2021. The 20 homicides recorded this year mirror the 20 that happened during the same period last year. There were 21 in 2021. 

The age and race of the city’s shooting victims are telling. Of the 90 people shot this year, 35 were 20 years old or younger; 21 were 17 or younger. Prior to last week’s fatal shooting of the five-year-old girl, the youngest victim was six. Police report that 89 percent of the victims were Black or Hispanic.

Anthony Feaster was shot to death near Hillside High School, where students in its performing arts program were in the final week of State of Urgency’s rehearsal.

Taryn Melvin is a 16-year-old rising junior at the Early College High School. On the day that Feaster was fatally wounded, Melvin was aboard a bus traveling to Hillside for play rehearsals. The bus went to W.G. Pearson Elementary School instead.

“We were all confused and didn’t know what was going on,” Melvin says. “Then someone told me someone had gotten shot at Hillside. We have become so desensitized, my first thought was ‘Again? It just happened again?’”

Many Hillside students learned via social media that Feaster, who attended the school, had died.

Melvin says when she walked into the drama room at Hillside later that day her fellow performers looked “frightened, hurt, and scared.”

The look on their faces, to Melvin, said, “this is really real. This really happened. Someone is really gone. A student is really gone.”

“I did not know Anthony personally, but I have a couple of friends who knew him,” Melvin adds. “My heart was broken
for them.”

State of Urgency premiered in late 2021 during a “cease-fire” organized by city leaders and activists during one of the city’s bloodiest years on record. 

The play’s reprise this year was sponsored by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. Nearly 5,000 youngsters attended. The production served as a catharsis and a call for community action. It’s a healthy counterpoint featuring the voices of young people through poetry, stories, monologues, songs, and dances, all augmented by music and videos sharing how violence has shaped their lives and worldviews.

Tiffany Agerston, who replaced Hillside’s legendary theater director Wendell Tabb this year, says the school went into “secure position” the day Feaster was shot. 

“No one was allowed in the school, or let out,” says Agerston, who lost her brother, Emani Ricks, 22, to gun violence in 2019.

Agerston says she did not know why the school went into a security posture until she attended a staff meeting immediately after school, “to let us know what was going on.”

Melvin says “something was off” during the play rehearsal after the shooting. 

“We understood what happened, but desensitization kicked in, and it was, ‘this happened again,’” she says.

Kelyse Raiyel says a family member who works at Hillside told her about the shooting before she arrived at the 4:45 p.m. play rehearsal. She says confusion and shock reigned in the drama room.

“We were all taken aback by it,” Raiyel says, “but trying not to show it and go on.”

The former director, Tabb, has continued to work with the production and is preparing it for a statewide tour. He says although the slain student was not involved in Hillside’s performing arts program, the shooting provided an opportunity for students to share their feelings about the pervasive gunplay in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Agerston agrees.

“During our rehearsal that day, it was something we had to process together,” she says. “It helped us realize why doing this play is so relevant. This has happened today, and these are the very issues we are talking about.”

Melvin says Agerston’s guidance was crucial after the shooting. She recalls how some of her castmates tried to cope with Feaster’s death by laughing it off—society appears unmoved by the deaths of so many young people, and that’s trickled down to the impacted students

“It was a surreal moment,” Melvin says. “Miss A [Agerston] tells us everything happens for a reason. She gave us a pep talk before the rehearsal in the drama room and let us know this issue needed to be addressed. The message was that our fellow peers needed to hear this.”

Tabb says Feaster’s death “was hitting extremely close to home.”

“The acting was no longer acting,” he adds. “It was about expressing their true emotions and feelings and having an honest dialogue that the students had to have in order to show how important this
issue was.”

Before the performances began, Melvin considered how the play would be seen by middle- and elementary-age students. She wondered if the play’s subject matter might be too heavy for them. 

“But something like Anthony [Feaster’s death] made me realize this needs to be addressed,” she says. “It won’t go over their heads.”

Agerston says that in addition to counselors arriving on campus to help the students sort through their feelings, conversations also took place in the classrooms.

“As a teacher, I have to figure out how my students are feeling,” she says.

Youth gun violence has also gained the attention of the state’s educational leaders. 

At the end of State of Urgency’s run, Catherine Truitt, the superintendent of the NC Department of Public Instruction, invited its cast members to a meeting she hosted at the Education Building in Raleigh.

Nearly 20 students, “thrilled and excited to have a chance to be heard,” sat with Truitt in a circle of chairs in a conference room, Agerston says.

The students’ big ask?

“They advocated for a mental health day,” Agerston says. “A day to catch up on their work, to breathe and for more education on certain types of mental health and more counselors in the building.”

Shayla Beulah, a rising senior at the Durham School of Technology on the Hillside campus, says it could be a day where students are allowed to stay home and relax, to reflect on everything that’s going on in their personal lives, the community, and the world at large. 

“It would be a day to meditate on ‘you’ and your goals,” Beulah says. 

She adds that if mental health day happened at school, then time could be spent talking with their teachers who could ask them how they’re doing.

“Just have a group discussion,” she says.

Aniya Lowe says a mental health day would focus on “self-care.”

“I’m healthy. I’m doing my routine,” she says. “Making sure everything is okay
with me.”

Kennedy, the NCCU counseling services director, says it’s imperative for mental health providers to go out into the communities.

“We have to get out of our professional spaces, and instead go into those spaces where people are,” she adds. “We can use that opportunity to not tell people what they should do, but instead listen and offer opportunities and ways of how to handle what is happening. When you tell young people what to do you take their control away. They want to gain a sense of control.”

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