Amid a surge of young people arrested this year for carrying a gun in Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu recently launched a youth safety task force in partnership with the Boston Police Department and Boston Public Schools to funnel resources directly to at-risk children and teenagers.
Boston police said in response to a Globe inquiry last month that there were 102 juvenile gun arrests between January and October 2022, far outpacing the entire calendar years of 2019 when there were 36 such arrests, 2020 when there were 48, and 2021 when there were 67.
“We have seen a bit of a trend of younger residents being involved in all categories of public safety incidents, and I know from having spent time with students at various schools... [that] many of the challenges stem from programs and supports having been dismantled during the pandemic,” Wu said in an interview Wednesday.
Police Commissioner Michael Cox said the prevalence of guns among kids and teenagers was concerning, and stressed that reducing youth gun violence would only be possible through collaboration with schools, families, and community members.
“Especially when we talk about the impact of COVID, our young people are at a time in their lives when they’re the most emotional and volatile they could be, at the same time that there’s a lack of resources to give them the direction and structure that might keep them out of harm’s way,” Cox said in an interview. “That is a complicated issue ... and not something police can handle on our own.”
Launched in mid-October, the task force combines the resources of more than 30 city departments and agencies that meet weekly with public school staff to discuss specific outreach strategies for at-risk students and their families.
“They go through name by name, school by school, with all parties present, to help identify families that could use additional resources or outreach, and to help support school leaders or educators who know that a young person needs more support as well,” Wu said. “Being able to have big-picture plans is really important, but at the end of the day, it is the little details that really matter and that translate into tangible action.”
The announcement comes as the city has seen recent high-profile acts of violence involving teenagers, including a shooting last month allegedly perpetrated by a 17-year-old outside Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester that wounded an 18-year-old.
Also last month, a 19-year-old Canton man was arrested in connection to the shooting death of 15-year-old Curtis Ashford Jr. on July 27 in Dorchester. Ashford, described by family friends as a laid-back and good-humored kid, had celebrated his birthday just two weeks before his death.
In addition, a 14-year-old boy was fatally shot last month on Washington Street in Roxbury in an attack that also left another juvenile wounded, police said. And in late October, elementary students at the UP Academy Holland in Dorchester alerted their teacher that a 7-year-old classmate brought a loaded pistol to school.
“It’s really important to understand that gun violence is not just happenstance for our youth. We see young people do this as a last resort,” said Kevan Barton, executive director of the outreach initiative YouthConnect. “They know someone who’s been shot. They’re scared.”
Youth outreach worker Emmett Folgert noted that for some at-risk kids, the fear of violence is everywhere.
Folgert vividly recalled helping some teenagers film an audition video in Fields Corner recently when they heard the sound of an electric scooter nearby. Immediately, everybody froze.
“Everybody’s looking around, their heads are swiveling, ready to duck, ready to run,” he said. “We were all nervous, just at the sound of the scooter, because so many shootings recently are shooters on scooters.”
Folgert called on law enforcement to deal severely with anyone caught selling guns to a minor, and on schools and families to come up with a safety plan for their kids.
“Every kid who lives in a dangerous neighborhood needs a safety plan, and all of us adults need to update and talk about that safety plan,” he said. Kids “have to walk through areas that many of us wouldn’t walk even if we live in the neighborhood. We’d get in our car and drive, but they don’t have that option yet,” he said.
Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said arresting a child and removing the gun from their possession has to be the beginning, not the end, of any effort to truly eliminate youth gun violence.
“When we arrest a child, that may stop a shooting from happening, but that’s not necessarily ending gun violence,” she said. “It’s not addressing the root causes of why violence happens, or why young people feel unsafe.”
Zakarin urged city and public safety officials to ask two questions: “What do we need to do now to stop the shootings from happening? But also, what’s the long-term work to address those root causes and actually end gun violence?”