by Trey Bundy, The Bay Citizen
An 11-year-old boy in San Francisco made headlines early last year when a shooting near his Western Addition home left a random bullet lodged permanently in his abdomen. Nerve damage, a ruptured bladder and chronic pain kept him out of school for more than four months.
For a brief moment after the shooting, the boy, who was 9 at the time, became the city’s latest example of how violence touches vulnerable young people. The fifth-grader spoke out against gun violence on local television and the steps of City Hall. He returned to Bessie Carmichael Elementary School last fall.
Then in February, the boy turned from the victim to the accused.
School administrators kicked him out of Bessie Carmichael for allegedly shooting another student in the face with a BB gun. He denied having a BB gun and shooting his classmate but admitted to carrying a plastic pellet gun in his backpack. The victim in the case was hit in the upper right cheek but was not seriously injured.
Although the facts are in dispute, the boy’s situation illustrates the San Francisco Unified School District’s haphazard struggle to fulfill complex health and safety mandates: Prevent violence, nurture victims and deal with inner-city trauma when it spills into the classroom.
While the district is responsible for keeping children safe, it’s also required to address the needs of students who exhibit risky or even violent behaviors. In the case of the boy at Bessie Carmichael, it failed to do both, records and interviews show.
A Bay Citizen review of violence prevention programs for youth in San Francisco revealed a web of services, mostly provided by city-funded nonprofit groups working in neighborhoods and, sometimes, schools. Even so, Shawn Richard, founder and executive director of Brothers Against Guns, said there are not enough resources to reach all of the kids who need help.
“The school district needs to partner up with organizations that deal with these issues in the communities instead of kicking a kid out of school with no counseling or services,” said Richard, whose group has a limited arrangement to work with students in the district. “But right now, we’re not at enough schools where we can do intervention.”
The district employs roughly 60 social workers and therapists to work in the city’s roughly 120 elementary and middle schools, but Andi Hilinski, who oversees the team, says that’s not enough to address the emotional needs of all students.
“Our department stance is that every school should have a full-time social worker and full-time nurse,” she said.
Despite limited resources, anti-violence experts say, schools remain the best places to help students from broken homes and violent neighborhoods get support.
In a study titled “Mitigating the Effects of Gun Violence on Children and Youth,” researchers at Cornell University said schools were “the most promising avenue for successful identification of and therapeutic intervention for exposed and victimized youth.”
California’s policy on weapons and “dangerous objects” in schools is strict – one strike and the student is referred for expulsion, unless the principal deems the action inappropriate. The state also allows districts to expel students for threatening to injure others.
The Cornell researchers noted that banning students who make threats “may actually exacerbate the danger by inflaming students who are already at risk for violent activity.”
District officials said they were aware of 30 incidents this past school year in K-12 grades involving some type of gun – toys, BB guns, replicas or actual firearms – up from 22 the year before. The district would not say how many of those students were referred for expulsion, but the state Department of Education said four students in San Francisco were expelled for violations involving firearms during the 2010-11 school year.
Self-reporting by students indicates that they’re bringing more weapons to school than administrators would otherwise know. In a 2011 district survey of more than 2,200 high school students, 5.8 percent reported carrying a weapon on school property. More than 7 percent said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon in the past school year.
San Francisco police Officer Lois Perillo, a liaison to public schools, said reported gun incidents on campuses were rare, but districts nationwide have been under pressure since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.
“After that tragedy happened, many jurisdictions around the country made revisions to the education code,” she said, “and that’s when zero tolerance for weapons came to bear.”
Not a clear-cut case
By all accounts, the 11-year-old boy, Tori, has experienced significant trauma in his life. Between being shot and being suspended, he has missed more than seven months of classes since January 2011.
As he sat home last semester, his mother, Sabrina Carter, worried that he could wind up in the “school-to-prison pipeline” through which she has seen so many other boys in the neighborhood pass.
“If they feel like the school is turning on them, that’s when they end up hanging around on the streets doing things they have no business doing,” Carter said.
District officials declined to discuss Tori’s case, citing confidentiality. The Bay Citizen chose not to use Tori’s full name because of his age and to protect his privacy. He and his mother have different last names. The family of the victim declined to be interviewed for this story.
After a district investigation failed to prove Tori shot his classmate, an expulsion panel decided not to remove him from the district. But administrators at Bessie Carmichael refused to allow him back, contending that Tori had threatened his classmates, who were then scared to tell the truth about the incident.
Regardless of guilt or innocence in such cases, said Aliya Sheriff, a psychologist at the 3rd Street Youth Center and Clinic in the Bayview district, teachers and school administrators should be better trained to address not just student behavior, but also the underlying causes of it.
“Our schools are not trained to respond to trauma,” said Sheriff, who is not involved with Tori’s case. “Kids often act out what they’re going through in play, and teachers need to learn how to break it down. To me, it looks like a real cry for help, and I’ve seen that a lot.”
Much of the evidence in Tori’s case comes from the recollection of elementary school students, and the facts are murky.
According to a report written for the district by Alicia Gonzalez, assistant principal of Bessie Carmichael, one of Tori’s classmates was shot with a BB gun inside their classroom Feb. 29. Initially, students reported that plastic pellets had been thrown at the victim, but they were unclear whether Tori or another student was responsible.
Tori’s teacher, Elvira Ebalo, was in the classroom but did not witness the incident.
The next day, when students were questioned individually, their stories changed, Gonzalez wrote. All of the students in class, except Tori, were asked to write statements, most of which contained varying accounts of Tori brandishing, and in some cases shooting, a BB gun or a toy gun in the weeks leading up to the incident. The students noted in their statements reviewed by The Bay Citizen that Tori was seen with the gun in the classroom, school library or a nearby park.
Tori told school officials that it was not a BB gun, but a toy gun that shot plastic pellets, which he got from a group of third-grade students at school. He admitted to carrying the gun in his backpack – which itself could violate state policy against possessing a dangerous object at school – but said another student took it out and shot his classmate while the teacher’s back was turned.
Tori said he eventually broke the gun and threw it away.
No support services received
Gonzalez – who declined requests for an interview – placed Tori on a five-day suspension after the incident, according to district documents provided by Carter, Tori’s mother. Within a week, Carter met with school administrators and a social worker to determine whether the boy needed support services. Notes from the meeting reviewed by The Bay Citizen show the group agreed that Tori was a role model at school and had strong peer relationships.
Although they planned in writing to arrange therapy for Tori, Carter said he has not received a mental health assessment or counseling. She also said that since that meeting, she has not heard from the district about services for her son.
The school was supposed to provide weekly homework packets for Tori while he was suspended, Carter said, but provided only one, which he finished in two days.
On March 9, after Carter rejected the district’s offer to transfer Tori to another school, Gonzalez referred the case for expulsion, according to the assistant principal’s report. Some of the grounds for expulsion were unclear; documents show that allegations included possession of a firearm, possession of an imitation firearm and possession of an explosive.
Tori was present at the expulsion hearing when Gonzalez told the panel that his classmates were afraid of him. He denied allegations by Gonzalez that he had threatened to shoot students with a “real gun” if they told on him for shooting his classmate.
“Why would I threaten to shoot somebody with a gun when I got shot with a gun and it hurt?” Tori said in an interview.
Tori said he does not understand why people would be afraid of him. In April, during a brief visit to Bessie Carmichael to meet some friends after school, he saw his class coming out of the building.
“They were excited to see me, and they were asking me when I was coming back to school,” he said. “They weren’t even scared at all. Nobody. They were all like, ‘What’s up, Tori?’ ”
Options for schooling
The expulsion panel eventually dismissed the case, citing lack of evidence. According to Carter, the district said gave her three choices: Tori could return to Bessie Carmichael, transfer to another school or begin homeschooling. But when Tori arrived at Bessie Carmichael, Gonzalez refused to let him in.
District officials then told Carter that Tori could transfer to another elementary school, Rosa Parks, but she declined, arguing that it was unfair to move Tori away from his friends. Tori had attended Rosa Parks three years earlier, but Carter said she removed him because he had altercations with children from other neighborhoods.
“And if they say he’s a threat,” she added, “why do they want to put him in another school?”
Carter said home-based schooling, another district suggestion, was “not an acceptable option” either because her son needed to socialize and engage with teachers.
Although Tori stayed home with his mother for the rest of the semester, he continued attending a nonprofit after-school program, United Playaz. That group’s director of programs, Misha Olivas whose three children have attended Bessie Carmichael, criticized the school for refusing to take Tori back.
“They’ve already given up on him,” she said.
Olivas said that after Tori was shot in 2011, the school’s principal, Jeffrey Burgos, chose not to discuss the shooting with Tori’s classmates because he was afraid the students would glorify the incident. Burgos did not return calls seeking comment.
As the end of the school year drew near, Olivas and Carter asked administrators if Tori could attend the school’s fifth-grade graduation ceremony and walk across the stage with his friends. The school denied the request, Carter said, until the day before the ceremony. But Burgos cautioned Carter that Tori might not be “welcomed back with open arms,” she said.
When Carter and Tori arrived for graduation, several uniformed police officers were present. School staff told Carter that the police were there “to make sure that you guys are safe,” she said.
“Safe from what?” Carter said later in an interview. “It was ridiculous. What kind of message are they trying to send this child?”
Tori was the last student to walk down the aisle at graduation, Carter said. Then police escorted them both out of the school.
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.