Three Minneapolis teenagers have recently been arrested, charged or sentenced to prison for killing other young people.
Experts who study youth violence say these examples illustrate the need for adults to start talking to children about violence and safety as early in the child's life as possible. And they say young people who attack their peers are often themselves victims of violence at an early age.
Last year, 141 gun-related incidents in Minneapolis involved a child as either a victim, a suspect, a witness or as someone arrested in the case. The city doesn't break down the ages of those involved, but in 2011, four young people were killed by gunfire. They were 16, 14, 13 and 3 years old.
Earlier this year, Nizzel George, 5, was shot and killed while he slept on a couch in his grandmother's north Minneapolis home. Two teenagers have been charged with murder in connection with the shooting. And recently, Malcolm Jackson, 16, was sent to prison for 25 years for the gun murder of Trequan Sykes, 16.
But the news isn't all bleak. According to the city, the number of gun-related incidents involving children has dropped nearly four-fold between 2006 and 2011. The number of juveniles wounded by gunfire in the city has also been dropping. However, for activists like Bobby Brown, any wound is one too many.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”Gun violence victim Bobby Brown
"I was shot once in my back with a .9 millimeter," Brown said. "It left me with a spinal cord injury."
Whoever fired that bullet put Brown in a wheelchair. In 1997, Brown was 15 years old and walking near a south Minneapolis church with his two sisters and a 10-month old niece when shots rang out from a passing car. Two bullets struck Brown's sister LaVonne in her legs. LaVonne's baby was not hit, but Brown said a bullet was found in the baby's diaper bag.
Brown doesn't fit the profile of the typical shooting victim. Police say usually, gunshot victims are people who engage in risky behavior — which can mean just hanging out near people who are selling drugs or fighting. But Brown said he knew better. He stayed away from trouble and focused on his dream of becoming a college football player.
"I was doing everything right and this still happened," Brown said. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone."
LESSON LEARNED — AND TAUGHT
Every year since he was shot, Brown and his mother have sponsored a youth basketball clinic in Minneapolis. At this year's event, several dozen boys and girls wore matching t-shirts sporting anti-violence slogans. The clinic mixes skill drills with messages about non-violence and safety.
After about a half hour of basketball, Brown's mother Ava helps corral the kids at center court to sit and listen to members of North Memorial Hospital's trauma staff.
Dr. Jonathan Gipson told the kids about what to do if they see a gunshot victim. He tells them the first thing is to make sure the shooter isn't still around. Then Gipson tells them to put a cloth over the wound and apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding while they wait for help to arrive.
Gipson said safety and violence prevention work together. He said children who grow up in violent homes, schools or neighborhoods are at high risk of violent behavior — sometimes as a form of pre-emptive self-defense. And Gipson said kids can get desensitized to violence by watching certain movies and playing video games where the objective is to kill everything in front of them.
"It's hard to break that message so we need to have events like this where we talk to kids one on one and we show them positive role models and give them coping mechanisms so they don't have to depend on violence to solve problems," Gipson said.
Gipson and others say role models are crucial influences. Kids emulate their peers, parents and other people in their lives.
PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT KEY
About two miles from the Bobby Brown clinic, a group of children play outside the park building at North Commons Park. Inside, city leaders talked about youth violence prevention.
Teenager Martice Clark lives just a few blocks from the park, and will be a sophomore at Southwest High School. He's working a summer job as an intern for the Minneapolis Police Department's crime prevention staff. Clark said he thinks it's true that young people react to violent situations according to how they are raised.
"It depends on how a person grew up," Clark said. "Some people got taught to fight back. Some people will get taught the right way, which is to walk away."
Clark said his parents tell him to avoid trouble by staying away from gang members. But he said he knows kids whose parents don't seem to have any interest in talking to their children about anything.
"Communication with a mother and a father, when possible, can be very protective against violence and other high-risk behaviors," said Dr. Iris Borowsky, a practicing pediatrician at the University of Minnesota who also studies youth violence prevention.
Borowsky said youth violence is a public health issue — which is an approach the city of Minneapolis has taken in addressing the problem. The city initiated a program called Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence five years ago. City officials say the program's focus on intervention and mentoring has helped reduce the amount of youth involved violence each year since the program began.
Borowsky said parents can provide the most basic violence prevention message, and can do so without saying a word.
"When a child is born, that bonding and attachment that happens because a parent is there, comes to you whenever you cry, is loving and warm. That begins the parent/child attachment and bonding that is so protective against violence involvement," she said.
CHOICE IS YOURS, VICTIM SAYS
The gun violence victim, Bobby Brown, said instead of choosing to seek revenge or lash out, he chose to turn the violence committed against him into something positive. And he said ultimately, kids have to make their own choices about how to react to their environment.
Brown said he just hopes his example will inspire young people to aspire to go to college — or at the very least stay out of jail.
"Or at least work, and not sell drugs. You know, make those types of changes or those type of decisions. Then we're winning," he said.
Gun violence prevented Brown from becoming a college football player. But it didn't stop him from getting to college. Last year, Brown graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a master's degree in psychology.