North High students, teachers, parents call for solutions to gun violence in Minneapolis

2022 has been a difficult year for Craig Merritt. The 11th grader plays football at North Community High School in Minneapolis. In February, a man fatally shot Craig’s teammate, Deshaun Hill, about a half-mile from the school, apparently at random. Deshaun was 15 years old. 

Nearly nine months after losing his close friend, Craig says he is cautious about his own personal safety, especially traveling to and from school.

“It made me not want to go outside and do a lot of stuff because of what’s going on,” he said. “I try to stay as far away as I can from all the violence. You never know, anything could happen at any time.” 

A Minneapolis man faces trial early next month in Deshaun’s killing. 

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Craig and two of his friends sat in the front row of North High’s auditorium Thursday night and listened as parents and teachers spoke at a public forum, telling political leaders how the trauma of recent shootings and the fear of more has affected them inside and outside the classroom.  

Students were also invited to speak. But principal Mauri Friestleben said most chose not to, because talking about what they’re feeling is traumatic.

Friestleben recounted pulling aside a ninth-grader in the hallway earlier Thursday.

“I asked her to walk with me because she was shot last weekend,” she said. “And I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. And she said that she had thought about talking to me and she had thought about talking to her counselor about it. But she doesn’t really want to talk about it because when she talks about it, her emotions get too big and she doesn’t have a place for them to go.” 

Four people sit on a stage, one holds a microphone.
Principal Mauri Friestleben speaks during a community forum on neighborhood safety at North Community High School on Thursday.
Ben Garvin for MPR News

English teacher Lars Lindqvist taught Deshaun Hill last year. But Lindqvist said Deshaun was not the first student he lost to gun violence. Keimonte White was fatally shot in early 2019. Diontae Wallace was killed a year and a half later.  Both were 17 years old. 

“I don’t know if anybody here has ever had to teach through the murder of a student or something comparable in your profession, but I wouldn’t wish it upon any of you. To stand in front of a room of people who are in all stages of grief while you yourself are going through that. To comfort colleagues, who themselves are grieving and ask them to face their classes. To hold a colleague as they weep and say ‘not again.’”

Geography teacher Samuel Wilbur added that students have asked to stay late because they feel unsafe at dismissal time. And Joe Stratig — who teaches a special ed life skills class that includes city navigation — says that’s become difficult.

“We can’t do that. We can’t go outside anymore. We can barely walk around the school. It’s not safe,” he said.

Briana Thompson said she grew up in north Minneapolis and often rode city buses with her friends to go to games and to the mall. But Thompson said that’s something she won’t allow her ninth-grade daughter to do. 

“Our kids need support. Our kids don’t deserve to be coming to school and leaving school hearing gunshots, seeing people laid out, seeing people strung out on drugs,” she said.

Thompson and other parents called on district leaders to provide transportation for students — even for those who live close to the school. When it was her turn at the mic Thursday night, interim superintendent Rochelle Cox promised to consider it. 

“You’re looking for commitments tonight, and I commit to you that we’ll look at that at both the North High School level and we’ll also look at that at the district level,” she said.

Cox also said the school board is taking up a resolution next month that would set aside $1.4 million or safety improvements such as extra security at athletic events and dismissal time.

Inspector Charlie Adams, who leads the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct, said crime trends are starting to move in the right direction. Adams, a North High graduate and assistant football coach, said officers are committed to keeping the community safe, even though staffing in the precinct is down by nearly half since 2020. 

“We have to serve everybody on the north side. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re providing service for them. It’s not as quick as it used to be, but we’re trying to get there. And that’s including North High. If they call 911, we will respond,” he said.

Mayor Jacob Frey and Cedric Alexander, the city’s new community safety commissioner echoed Adams’ commitment to north Minneapolis. 

Adams said a police detail Wednesday resulted in the recovery of 19 firearms and 1,000 fentanyl pills, and the arrest of 40 people. Though gun violence remains high, city crime data show that the number of gunshot wound victims on the north side is down 25 percent compared to a year ago, and homicides are down 35 percent.