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St. Louis Region Copes With 15 Children Killed This Summer

Mary Norwood, the grandmother of 7-year-old Xavior Usanga, speaks to Alderman Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward and Maj. Mary Warnecke, the deputy commander of the Bureau of Investigations, on Aug. 13, 2019. Xavior was the 7th child killed in the city this year.
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Jason Eberhart, 16, was a football player ― like his brother who plays for Ball State University and his father who played for the University of Illinois.

“He comes from a family of football,” said his cousin and mentor Charles Shelton. “He was the middle child of five. We were really hoping that football was going to keep his mindset, but unfortunately life in the streets got the best of him.”

On Sunday, August 18, Eberhart died from multiple gunshot wounds in the Carr Square neighborhood at 2 a.m., and the investigation is ongoing. His family is taking his death very hard, Shelton said, which is why he was speaking on their behalf.

Just on Friday, Eberhart had been at Soldan High School to complete the transfer process from his previous school, Kirkwood High, said Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the St. Louis Public School District.

Eberhart is among 15 children in the St. Louis metro area who did not return to school this semester – 15 children have been killed by gun violence since May.

Nine of these children were current or former St. Louis Public School students: Charnija Keys, a sixth grader at Yeatman Middle; Myiesha Cannon, sophomore at Sumner High; Derrel Williams, a freshman virtual student; Kristina Curry, a junior virtual student; Eddie Hill, a sixth grader at Pamoja Preparatory Academy; Xavier Usanga, a second grader at Clay Academy of Exploration and Civics; Jashon Johnson and Davaun Winters, both 16, had not been currently enrolled; and Eberhart, who was scheduled to attend Soldan on Monday as a junior.

“It’s a really sad situation that young people can’t be protected when they are being young people,” Adams said. “It’s a very difficult time for families and the community.”

The other children are: Ien Coleman, a Parkway North High School freshman;

Robert “R.J.” Dorsey, a Bayless High School sophomore; Omarion D. Coleman, freshman at Granite City High School; Michael Henderson Jr., a sophomore at East St. Louis High School; Jaylon McKenzie, an eighth grader at Center Junior High in Belleville, Ill.

And, there was also three-year-old Kennedi Powell.

“She will never go to kindergarten. She will never go to first grade. She will never have an eighth-grade graduation,” said Philicia Burrage, a cousin who organized a vigil after Kennedi was shot and killed on June 9, according to KSDK.

James Clark, community outreach director at Better Family Life Inc., received calls and has provided resources and counseling to 10 of these grieving families.

“These families will never be the same,” Clark said. “The culture in our neighborhoods is so intense that the person who pulled the trigger, they are a victim of the same culture. I know people who have pulled the trigger who were part of this cannibalizing mentality that has gripped our neighborhood.”

Clark has spent decades trying to decrease gun violence throughout the city by addressing the “depth of dysfunction” in the areas most impacted by crime. He does this with a strong team of outreach workers, who often grew up in the area where they do outreach work and have been through the criminal justice system.

“The most important position in social service organizations moving forward is the outreach worker ― the man and woman who are able to immerse themselves in the neighborhood and challenge the culture of the neighborhood,” Clark said. “And that’s why we have to empower the individuals who know this area the best.”

St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden said one of the biggest challenges that police have is the state’s loose gun laws. He explained that unless a person is a convicted felon, possessing a firearm is not a crime.

“We see guys all the time that we believe would potentially be involved in criminal activity,” Hayden said, “but for that reason alone, we can’t impede their movement because it’s not a crime to possess the gun in Missouri. That certainly hinders our ability to be more proactive with respect to intervention on gun violence.”

Hayden said drugs are the cause of 50 percent of homicides in general, and that is why the department has a robust drug taskforce. For the past couple years, Better Family Life has set up tents near open-air drug markets in North St. Louis to provide social services and health care for drug addicts. The idea is to meet people where they are and to get them help.

While each agency is doing some work to try and address gun violence, Adams said that the region overall does not see child deaths as a crisis ― and it should.

“I see us commiserating and being angry or frustrated,” Adams said. “But I don’t see anyone rushing to solve the problem. When Katrina happened in 2005, I lived in New Orleans, there was a different kind of crisis and people were running to try and solve the problem. I don’t see that energy.”

St. Louis County Police Department’s Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, who is currently overseeing the county’s jail, said that all the efforts in the region are being done in isolation and at a snail’s pace. There are a lot of “meetings to have another meeting to discuss about having another meeting,” he said. And the region has all the data it needs to move forward.

“As it sits today, we have numerous drug task forces, carjacking task forces, etc., but nothing holistically to address crime as a whole,” Doyle said. “Being that crime doesn’t stop at the border of the city or county, we need an area-wide strategic plan to address crime holistically.”

Even within the City of St. Louis, Adams said that efforts are not coordinated.

“I think there is a void of leadership to call people together and work on solutions in a way that would likely happen in other places,” Adams said. “We don’t have anybody, a go-to leader, that is calling people together and saying, ‘Okay, superintendent, police chief, recreation department, what can we collectively do to try and solve this problem?’ That’s the real challenge here.”

Rebecca Rivas is a reporter for the St. Louis American, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.