This article first appeared in The Trace, an independent, nonprofit media organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in America.
Sue, 36, is an assistant principal at a high school in the Westbank area of New Orleans, a suburban neighborhood on the Mississippi River. Since the start of the year, 29 people have been fatally shot in the city – including former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith, who was killed in a road-rage incident Saturday night. Sue, who spoke with The Trace's Jennifer Mascia, asked that her real name, her school, and the names of her former students not appear in this story.
The vast majority of my kids -- who come from neighborhoods all over the city -- have been exposed to gun violence. Whenever I read the news and see a report of a shooting or a murder, especially when they identify the victim as a young man, I click on the link and think, “I hope I don’t know this person. I hope this is not one of mine.”
In my 14 years of teaching in New Orleans, I can count the number of students I’ve lost to gun violence on two hands. Our school lost three students over the course of three years, so those stand out.
Jordan was a senior in the fall of 2012. He was really into skateboarding, and was a very good student. I recall seeing a news story in September that said an 18-year-old male was shot and killed, and the next day a teacher sent me a text with his name, asking if I knew him. It just shocked me.
Jordan had been taking the trash out at two in the morning. He lived in a gated, upper-middle class neighborhood. I think someone was out there waiting for him and shot him right in his front yard. It might have been drug-related. But after the news broke, I told our kids, “There’s no reason someone should have been killed. Whatever it was, it wasn’t worth a life.”
His mom ran outside when she heard the gunshots, and Jordan died in her arms. I got to know her when she was enrolling him in the school, and she’s now an anti-gun violence advocate in the city. She and I stay in pretty close contact. I try to send her cards at different holidays to say, “I’m still thinking about you.”
Jordan’s brother is currently a ninth grader. We’ve been trying to get him into our school. His mom told me that, at the school he’s in right now, he recently stepped in to break up a fight between a couple of students, and he got in trouble for it. And he said, “I’m not watching someone else die.”
Then there was Chad. He came here for his freshman and sophomore year. He was hilarious. He wanted to be a musician. He was one of those kids who was not a good learner, he didn’t have a good educational foundation, so he caused trouble in school. He got expelled at some point, but he remained good friends with our students and would come by the school, so I still considered him one of my kids.
He was killed on a Saturday in December 2013. Chad was selling drugs after our school’s football game, and I don’t know what went wrong, but they shot him in the head several times and stuffed his body in the trunk of a car and drove him to a wooded area.
I learned about his death on the news, but the kids know immediately. It spreads via text and social media. They know when the family knows.
Robert graduated in 2014. He was goofball, and couldn’t sit still. He was always in the halls instead of in class. He’d come up to me and give me a hug. He and I were pretty close while he was here, even though he was in trouble a lot.
Then, just over a year ago, I saw online that there had been a shooting in the city the night before. The next morning when I got out of the gym, there was a text message from one of my students who’d graduated that year: “Please call me right now.” What college freshman sends text messages at six in the morning? I called her right away, and as soon as I hit “send,” something clicked. It’s like something connects, and you know it’s bad. She said, “Did you hear about Robert?” I’m on the phone with her and we’re both crying about it.
He was shot and then crashed his car into a tree. We heard that he was selling drugs, but not big-time. It was a little here and there. He was enrolled at the community college, and wanted to be a mechanic or an electrician. I think he would have been very successful with that.
His girlfriend is still a student here, and a lot of the kids who were here last year knew him well. And so that affected us a lot. His girlfriend didn’t handle it so great — she was absent a lot afterward. It still comes up from time to time.
His funeral was the only one that I was able to go to. There’s something about seeing 18- and 19-year-olds bury their friends. My kids should not have to do that. I need that to stop.
I still see pictures of Robert pop up on social media. They still tweet about Jordan. They still tweet about Chad, too. The kids mourn for a long, long time.