Jadah Brewer was a smart, precocious 8-year old. “Just a beautiful young lady,” her Gifted and Talented teacher Heather Rowland recalled Monday night.
Brewer was in a summer school program in June, working on a history project with her classmates where they were writing their biographies and thinking of a person they wanted to interview from the past.
For Rowland, one particular day this summer stands out tragically from the rest.
“She gave me a hug that morning, gave me a hug goodbye in the afternoon,” Rowland said.
Later that night, she learned Brewer wouldn’t return to class. She had been fatally shot at home. The next day, Rowland had to talk with Brewer’s classmates about the incident.
“It’s very hard to explain to them because there is no explanation really,” Rowland said, standing at a podium in the boardroom at Brandon Central Services. “… I want our kids to feel safe at school and safe at home. They should be able to expect that.
“This is just one of my children,” she added. “I’ve taught in this district for 14 years, and quite a few of my students have been in the paper because they are the ones who fired the gun. My heart breaks for them, too, because I knew them when they were in the first grade.”
At the outset of Monday’s community meeting on gun violence, which Columbus Municipal School District hosted, Brewer’s death was noted with a simple chime on a bell — among 71 chimes, one for each CMSD student who has been directly impacted by gun violence over the past five years either as a victim or shooter. The sobering beginning to the meeting that drew roughly 60 community members set the stage for the message Superintendent Cherie Labat hoped to get across.
“The impact of gun violence, especially with youth, traumatizes our children,” Labat said. “… It makes our school district a triage for the wounded. … Until the most vulnerable children in this community are our top priority, change cannot happen.
“I promised myself when Jada died that her death and the deaths of every child lost would not be in vain,” she added. “The fury in my heart is for the students and the educators who have been impacted by gun violence.”
Statistics and perception
Statistics Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton provided CMSD for the meeting showed a sharp, if not misleading, uptick this year in shootings in the city — 348 compared to 58 in 2020.
However, Shelton clarified after the meeting the 58 shootings from 2020 were actual cases and the 348 for 2021 were a result of a department policy to generate a report for every shots-fired call, regardless of whether there was injury, property damage or an actual case generated from the call.
District Attorney Scott Colom, who served along with Shelton and several other community leaders on a panel for the meeting, noted gun crime has increased nationwide in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he believes perception of crime in Columbus is always far worse than the reality. Still, he said, this year’s shooting incidents in Columbus are concerning.
“What concerns me the most (about them) is most of the time … the person who was shot at, even the person who has been shot, refused to cooperate with police,” he said. “… We’ve had situations (where) people have been shot, in the hospital, 16 years old, ‘F the police. I ain’t saying nothing. I don’t know who shot me.’ Well, obviously you know who shot you.”
Colom said the community needs to start having “tough conversations” about gun culture and youth access to guns. He pointed, as an example, to being suspended for three days after getting in a fight when he was in middle school.
“The difference now is that people involved in that fight tend to have guns or knives,” Colom said. “When you are young, you have a gun and your brain is not fully developed and you have not developed the (relationship with) your parents that maybe you should have, your self control is lower than it should be, and you therefore are more likely to make bad decisions. And you have a gun, so it makes that bad decision worse than you could ever imagine.”
When that type of violence occurs, he said, it leaves family, friends, teachers and classmates to cope with it to the point it is normalized.
“The worst thing you can ever have happen to a child is that gun violence is normal to them,” he said.
School programs and audience questions
Monday’s meeting was, in essence, a call for the community to become more involved with youth and the school district to “get the guns out of the kids’ hands.”
“We’re not afraid of our students coming to school,” Labat said. “Rather, we fear what might happen when they go home. … We’re only as safe as the relationships we build, and we need everyone to find solutions to build a community for all.”
Part of that process was enumerating the in-house steps CMSD is already taking, such as a partnership with Community Counseling Services for crisis response and an anger management program for students who display aggression.
“Generally when gun violence happens, it’s an act of emotion,” Labat said. “We understand that teaching our students how to deal with emotion is an important part of stopping the problem of gun violence and violence in the community.”
CMSD also requires students to enter the building through metal detectors at least three times per week, or more often after a major violent event has occurred in the community, Labat said. In response to an audience question, she said metal detector days have found no firearms brought to school, but they have found knives and “gun paraphernalia.”
CMSD’s violence prevention program includes parent meetings and crisis response training for bus drivers, as well as focusing on what Labat called a key component of breaking the cycle — exposing children to workforce development training that would assure them opportunities to join the middle class as adults.
In response to other audience questions, Labat noted the district is evaluating options for hiring more social workers and school resource officers for the district, as well as “recalibrating” SRO pay to assure full staffing.
CMSD also is partnering with the district attorney’s office for a restorative justice program, which Colom said would be the first program of its kind in the state. To explain how it works, he again turned to his own middle school fight experience.
“After we got suspended, there was no communication from the school. … Nobody ever asked us why we fought,” he said. “That’s what restorative justice does. It tries to get to the root cause of the problem before it escalates into something worse.”
A picture of unity
Lowndes County District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, when he spoke at the meeting, held up a photo to the crowd that was taken in 2007, shortly after Columbus voters overwhelmingly approved a $22 million bond issue to build a new middle school.
The photo shows community members gathered around the superintendent as a show of support for public education.
“When you look at this picture, you see Black, white, young and old, but we were all together,” Brooks said.
Then he challenged the audience to replicate the photo and its message Monday, this time with Labat in the center.
“Let’s post this on Facebook,” he said. “Let’s let people see we support our superintendent and our school district. That’s the message we have to send out that we’re all in this together.”
About one-third of community members who attended volunteered to be in the photo that was taken after the meeting.
Brooks, along with several of Monday’s speakers, hammered home the importance of unity, community and parental involvement in mitigating the scourge of gun violence. He chairs the city’s Crime Prevention Task Force and asked Monday for volunteers to help launch a community wide youth organization that would help divert children from violent activity.
“I’m 68 years old,” Brooks said. “I could be on the bank fishing or playing golf, but I don’t want anybody shooting at my house. And I don’t want anybody bothering my granddaughter (an elementary student at CMSD) because then I’m going to have to go and react. And I’m too old to go to jail. So what I’m trying to be proactive, but we’ve got to do it together.”
Labat, in her final remarks, called on community meetings like Monday’s to be held quarterly.
“I don’t want this to be a ‘one-and-done’ situation,” she said. “Our students deserve a quality of life that is worth living. … This is worth fighting for.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.