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Pandemic Perseverance: Remembering William, who was killed by gun violence

A Cleveland Metropolitan School District student, William, was killed by gun violence in June 2020. [Anneliese Coleman]
A Cleveland Metropolitan School District student, William, standing in a parking lot. He was later killed by gun violence in June 2020. [Anneliese Coleman]

The coronavirus pandemic has been taking lives for more than a year, but in many neighborhoods, an epidemic of gun violence that long precedes the pandemic is taking lives, too.

In Ideastream Public Media’s new Pandemic Perseverance series, part of our Coping with Covid-19 reporting initiative, Slavic Village residents share their memories of the struggle to deal with the pandemic, and the hope that carries them through.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District psychologist Anneliese Coleman, who lives in Slavic Village and works with students in the neighboring Union-Miles neighborhood, tells us about the trauma of the epidemic inside the pandemic, and about how she tries to help students and families navigate these crises. She spoke several months ago about how she mourns William, the student she wants to assure is not forgotten.


Gun violence increases during pandemic

At John Adams High School, we have lost 14 students and former students in the past year, since March of 2020. So just in this neighborhood where I live and work, the gun violence increased so much during this past year. We had three former students murdered in one week four weeks ago, and we were in the building then. And the families sometimes come to the buildings because we have the supports there. And it's been really difficult for me. I'm sorry, I'm going to cry. 

So that's why I thought it was important to come and talk about these young men, because there is no news about them. The families weren't able to have funerals at the beginning. And you know, a lot of them couldn't afford things. Everything that we had to do was by phone or we had to support them over Zoom. And that's really, really hard.

These young men are maybe not the best community people, you know? But at school, they were, they were pretty awesome to me, you know? And I got to know many of them. And some of them I just know their families through responding to after they were murdered. And it was a really hard year. It was a really hard year.

Losing William to gun violence

One of the closest young men, his name was William. And my first year at John Adams, his group of people — I guess you could call it a gang — that he was affiliated with, they had lost four members from November to January. And when they returned to school, William was acting out all the time. And one of the security officers brought him to my office and I was a new psychologist then. I had only been working there like a couple of months. He came in and, you know, he was like, "I'm not going to talk to you. We don't talk about stuff like this," you know? And I was like, "That's OK, you can just sit here quietly if that's all you want to do.' "

So then William came back every day, and even if he didn't attend a class, he came to my office. And then he started bringing the other young people that were in his group that were also suffering. There were only four of them left. And William for four years was so scared because his parents were both murdered. His grandparents were murdered. His grandmother was the person who was taking care of him. And before he was murdered, summer of last year of 2020, he was on his own. And I couldn't even tell you where he would be living. And then he was murdered last June.

They were very caring people. William was really funny, actually. And they were teenagers, you know. With the door closed, they could be vulnerable. And William always spoke about this was how his life was going to end. He told everyone that. He knew that this was his legacy was to be murdered as everyone else in his family was murdered.

I sit at home even now and I can hear the gunshots and I just wait for my phone to ring or the text message to come through. Now I understand what the preschooler hears every day for 18 years until they graduate. I think it's about giving each of us a chance, right? I think we have to fight our urges to constantly classify how someone looks to "that must be how they think" or operate.

Seeing students persevere

So some of my students graduated, you know, last summer. And Diquez, he didn't have any credits when I met him in his sophomore year. He made up all of his schooling. He worked so hard, got himself together, got a job, purchased a car last year and now he's being a waiter at Applebee's. Like, he went from being on that same path as William to something completely different and stretched himself and applied to college at Kent, and was attending online. You know, like unbelievable stuff, and I couldn't be more proud of that young man. 

Anneliese Coleman is a school psychologist at John Adams High School, part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. [Anneliese Coleman]


Keeping William's memory alive

I feel, like, honored to have known William and to have gotten to see that part of him that I'm not sure he got to even show people beyond the outside of my office doors. I wish William was still here. I wish that he could have told his own story.


Reporting for this project was done by freelance reporter Rachel Dissell with aid from Nicole Abraham, Pamela Shelley, Michael Heuer and Sharon Irby, whom you heard in this piece. It was edited and produced by Ideastream Coordinating Producer Rachel Rood.

Rachel is the supervising producer for Ideastream Public Media’s morning public affairs show, the “Sound of Ideas.”