March 2, 2013

Shootings hit close to home for some Miami-Dade teens

More than 100 kids age 18 and younger have been homicide victims since 2009 in Miami-Dade County. A movement to curb shootings is growing.

Juan Videa was supposed to be in class Monday at Booker T. Washington Senior High, but he never made it to school.

Juan, 17, was walking to his bus stop in Bay Vista Park when someone fired more than 20 bullets, police said. Wounded, Juan was rushed to Ryder Trauma Center.

His shooting — following a weekend in which two other teens were shot and killed — feeds a growing movement to curb youth violence and gunplay that started nationally in December after the Newtown, Conn., massacre and locally after the apparently random shooting of Booker T. freshman Aaron Willis.

“How do we get away from this culture of violence?” asked Booker T. Principal William Aristide, who says he learns “once or twice” a year that one of his students has been shot.

In Miami-Dade County, the threat of being gunned down is very real to those 18 and younger. Between the beginning of 2009 and the end of 2012, 99 kids were homicide victims in Miami-Dade, according to records compiled by the county’s Medical Examiner. That’s exactly triple the number reported by the Broward Medical Examiner.

Of the 99 Miami-Dade cases, 81 were the result of shootings. And close to half were students of Miami-Dade County public schools, according to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who began campaigning against youth violence after Aaron was shot Dec. 19 while riding his bike from a friend’s house in Wynwood at 9 p.m.

“I made a promise when I became superintendent that I would attend the funeral, a viewing, a burial for every single child who would die a violent death in Miami. I am tired,” Carvalho, superintendent since late 2008, said during a news conference on the first day back from winter break. “We’ve covered this one time too many. I’ve attended over 40 such events, and it’s time to stop.”

Carvalho, who days earlier had canvassed Allapattah with the family of Bryan Herrera, a Miami Jackson sophomore shot dead on his bicycle Dec. 22, worried that the issue would “die out as a result of time simply passing.”

That hasn’t happened, in part because kids keep getting shot.

Ten days later, Landon Kinsey, a sophomore at Miami Carol City, was shot dead in Miami Gardens. Then on Feb. 13, Orlando Gonzalez, 13, was shot in his home in Kendall and transported to Miami Children’s Hospital in critical condition.

Last weekend, Marquise Brunson, identified by WFOR-CBS4 as an Ace Academy student, and Dante Vilet, both 16, were shot and killed just days after Carlos Zuniga shot his son and daughter, ages 11 and 14.

And then Juan was shot at his bus stop, bringing attention back to Booker T High, one of several schools to mourn the murder of multiple students in the past few years. In that time, Booker T has lost at least two students: senior Alex Tillman, whose charred body was found near the FEC railroad tracks, and Anthony Smith, a Tornadoes linebacker fatally wounded during a 2009 mass shooting at an Overtown birthday bash.

As shootings have continued — more than 500 last year in Miami-Dade, according to WFOR — media attention has increased, as has uproar from communities damaged by gun violence. Pastors around Miami-Dade held news conferences, offered rewards for information and met with Miami Police, who announced in what they said was an unrelated move that they would enforce a rarely heeded county curfew for kids under 17.

Meanwhile, Carvalho and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, after a series of meetings, are scheduled to meet a final time with politicians and police from around the county on Friday to take action against youth violence.

Carvalho has vowed that their efforts will make an impact, but victims and their families, while hopeful, aren’t sold.

“What do you really think can be done at this stage, when everybody has guns?” said Sam Willis, father of Aaron, who was paralyzed when a bullet struck his spinal chord, shattered two vertebrae, punctured his lung and lodged in his shoulder. “It seems to be a way of life.”

At Booker T, a group of students who spoke to The Miami Herald on campus after Juan was shot talked about how their Overtown school is one of the few places they feel safe. On the streets, they’ve grown accustomed to ducking into doorways to avoid shootings, wearing baggy clothes out of fear of being raped, and attending funerals for friends and family.

Some went to middle school with Gary Bell, who was shot dead in 2011 at 17; Tracy Gabriel, shot at 16 in front of her son; and Jordan Rodriguez, shot last year in the head.

“I guess we’re kind of, like, used to it,” said Yulissa Reyes, 18. “Do you know how many funerals we’ve gone to?”

John Hawkins, whose aunt, Terrilyn Gray, was stabbed to death last year, said he no longer visits his mom in Overtown because the last time he did there was a shooting in the street. He said he goes straight to school and straight home.

“This school is great. I know I’m safe here,” he said. “But when 2:20 hits, I’m flying down the road.”

Police say Juan is recovering, though they’re saying little else about his shooting. In the meantime, Booker T kids will keep heading to school.

“We should be worried about college. We shouldn’t be worried about our friends passing away,” said Breann Haugabook, 17. “We’re too young for that.”

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