The Monday after Thanksgiving, seventh-graders at KIPP Soul Academy were reeling from the news that their classmate, 12-year-old Zyion Charles, had been shot and killed over the weekend.
KIPP Soul had extra counselors from other area schools on site to support staff their own staff and mourning students. “From the time they arrived, we were comforting both scholars and staff who were just truly heartbroken,” said Mini’imah Shaheed, the CEO of KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools.
“KIPPsters were able to write a journal, draw. They created playlists for Zyion, they decorated his locker, things of that nature, which was supportive of the healing,” Shaheed said. “The heartbreak is real and deep and evident.”
It all started Nov. 26. After getting into an argument at Atlantic Station, two groups of teens were escorted off the property for being out past the shopping center’s 3 p.m. curfew for unaccompanied youths. What happened next, police say, is that one set of teens was riding electric scooters down the 17th Street bridge at 8 p.m. when the group they had been arguing with approached and opened fire.
Six people were struck by gunfire and two were killed — including Charles, who died at the scene, and 15-year-old Kameron Jackson, who passed away Tuesday. According to the lead investigator on the case, homicide Detective J. Shephard, APD believes that all three shooters were aiming for Jackson, and the others were collateral damage. They have released surveillance footage from after the shooting and are asking for residents’ help in identifying the suspects on the tape.
At the Atlanta City Council Public Safety Committee meeting on Monday, Zyion Charles’ mother, Deerica Charles, spoke and urged council members to help parents who are trying to keep their children off the streets.
“I tried y’all, I called the police office almost 30 times,” Charles said. “[I called] 30 times in the last two years, they told me they can’t do anything.”
Gun violence has been a major public safety concern for residents, activists and politicians in Atlanta in the past few years. However, this latest shooting has highlighted how often children are the victims.
Nadia Thomas, the mother of a seventh-grader at KIPP Soul Academy, said her son couldn’t really articulate his feelings when he found out about Charles passing.
“This isn’t my son’s first encounter of having to deal with losing a classmate or a friend to murder,” Thomas said. She recalled two years earlier having to comfort her son when Tyrell Sims, a boy he played football with, was shot and killed during a drive-by in East Point.
“As parents, as nurturers, we want to protect them and take away the pain, but this is one instance where all we can really do is console and talk to them. There is no taking away the pain,” she said.
Shaheed said that KIPP schools intentionally serve urban centers, but that also comes with additional challenges.
KIPP serves over 5,000 students across 11 schools, approximately 10% of all Atlanta Public School students. In the past few years, KIPP students Secoriea Turner, 8; Vincent Truitt, 17; Tyrell Sims, 11; and Zaccardi Dukes, 17; have all been killed due to gun violence.
“We’re on edge every time there’s an extended break because our scholars want to socialize, as they should,” she said. “They’re going to be more out into the community, as they should, and they should feel safe to do so.”
Sylvester Pierce is always thinking about Black communities when these tragedies happen. Pierce runs the Self-Preservation Society, where he teaches firearms training and first aid to children and adults.
“We need to make sure that that ignorance gets squashed out,” he said, arguing that deaths from firearms — whether accidental or on purpose — are preventable.
“No more kids need to be killed off of someone being ignorant.”
In addition to firearms training, Pierce also teaches conflict resolution, which he says is part of the larger issue when it comes to gun violence.
“Most kids don’t understand the destructive power that a firearm has. They don’t understand anything about conflict resolution, about situational awareness” he said. “The argument that happened that led to what happened with those kids, none of them just said, ‘I’m going to walk away from it.’”
Keisha Sean Waites, Post 3 At-Large council member, said she will propose an 8 p.m. curfew for minors within city limits, after community members expressed concerns that a proposed 7 p.m. curfew was too early. The legislation would be “a stopgap measure to save the lives of family members and our neighbors until we develop a solution,” adding that, “We must move quickly to protect the lives of our most vulnerable populations.”
Thomas is undecided on whether the proposed curfew is what the city needs to keep children safe, but agreed that something has to be done. She’d like to see more resources for kids to keep them occupied and minimize the opportunities for them to get into bad situations.
“I don’t want us to talk about it today and tomorrow and the rest of the week, and then in a month or so it dies down and we try and go back to normal, and we don’t talk about it again until another tragedy occurs,” she said.