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Cleveland students convene summit to develop plan against gun violence

Cleveland Metropolitan School District students "vote" using a ballot that asks them their opinion on various gun-violence related issues, from state laws to city curfews.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Metropolitan School District students vote using a ballot that asks them their opinion on various gun-violence related issues, from state laws to city curfews.

Six Cleveland Metropolitan School District students and one recent graduate have been shot and killed since June. Students with the district’s Civics 2.0 program gathered Monday for a “student summit” to learn more about gun violence’s impact and develop “action plans” in response to it.

The day started with student Aaliyah Abdul-Basit reading the names of the students who were killed: Pierre Davis, Luis Diaz, Marcel Martin, Trashawn Troutman, Anthony Elliot, Camerin Turner, and CMSD graduate Kyle Jackson, who was shot and killed on his 20th birthday in August.

The students then heard from a panel of experts including two men who served lengthy prison sentences for shooting and killing another person when they were young.

Damian Calvert, who has focused his time on violence interruption and work preparing inmates for reentry into society since leaving prison, served 18 and a half years. He said he shot and killed the “wrong person” when he was 18, someone he mistakenly thought had been the one to shoot him, several months earlier.

“Violence has shaped my life,” he said. “It created who I was.”

He looked back on moments when he said he became “weaponized” through trauma he experienced as a young person.

“Over the arc of my journey, I kept asking the question, 'how did I end up here?' And there was a slow realization, but it took me all the way back to my memories in the projects when I was a light-skinned brother getting beat up,” he said. “It took me back to when my mom went to prison when I was 12, and when I was 14, I ended up in Buckeye Youth Center.”

Vince Evans, with the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, who was in prison for almost 30 years for murder, said he similarly was influenced by the environment around him.

“At 17, I wasn't a gangster. I wasn't a killer. I was a scared little kid that had a gun,” he said. “And instead of dealing with it the way a responsible young adult should have, walking away or thinking about the consequences of my actions before I took those actions, instead, I chose to do what I believed was right.”

Natasha Lovelace, another panelist, said there’s a far-reaching toll that gun violence has wreaked on her life. Her daughter, Makayla, was shot in the head the summer before her senior year while she was driving to work but survived despite injuries that will have lifelong consequences on her mental functioning.

When something happens like your daughter being shot or even, you think of somebody (dying) or experiencing trauma, you stop and do what you have to do to take care of your family members and friends and loved ones,” Lovelace said. “But the world does not stop. Bills piled up. My career and my household was put on hold.”

During the event, students with the Civics 2.0 program – the district’s civics-engagement program - signed a pledge to not use guns to settle disputes and to step in and mediate when they see peers consider resorting to using a gun.

They also worked in groups to put together action plans to address the impact of gun violence on the community.

Michelle Bell, the founder of the M-PAC advocacy organization in Cleveland, told students that their action plans from last year have begun to bear fruit. She said students worked with her to develop “We Care” bags which will be sent to families in the Cleveland area who have lost a loved one to gun violence. The bags contain a guide with help finding counseling and other resources, as well as items like a picture frame to help families remember their loved ones by.

She said receiving a bag like that would have been helpful for her when her son was shot and killed in 2019.

We want to share with community, with families, with victims, that there is hope, that we do care," she said. "We are empathetic. We are sympathetic to what you're going through at this time."

About 40 bags have already been sent out this year, Bell said, while more are being made with fundraising help from the school district’s Civics 2.0 students and advisers.

Throughout the day, the students also voted, with help from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, in a mock election. The issues on the ballot ranged from yes or no votes on whether the city’s curfew helps prevent gun violence to whether the state should repeal its “Stand your Ground” law.

The students also submitted the names of those they’ve lost to gun violence to become a part of an eventual memorial that will be shared with schools to post in hallways.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.