Miami-Dade student project: Saving themselves, other kids from gun violence

Kevin Jones is only 12 years old, but he hears a lot about kids getting shot to death.

So when his seventh-grade teacher assigned a current events project, he and his classmates at Carrie P. Meek K-8 decided to take on teen gun violence.

What started as a class project has turned into a personal campaign to save their peers. Just weeks into their project, their classmate, Shaketha Allen, lost her little brother, King Carter, to gun violence. He was only 6 when he was killed in February, caught in a gunfight between teens feuding over a Facebook post.

Together, the students in Isaiah Thomas’ law studies class are writing to lawmakers, lobbying for new laws and pushing for more programs that will help keep them safe.

“We see it more and more on the news, but nobody tries to make a difference. But we will, and we’re only seventh graders,” said Jeff Charles, 13.

With more than 300 children and teens killed by gunfire in the last decade, the youth murder rate in Miami-Dade County has been called an epidemic by community leaders. This month, two teens were killed in separate shootings within hours of each other.

The zip codes surrounding Carrie P. Meek, which is wedged between North Miami and Opa-locka, are among the hardest hit.

The class project is called Done with the Guns. The students have researched laws in other states, interviewed community leaders and surveyed their own classmates to learn about the problem.

Now they’re coming up with solutions: better witness protection laws to help solve crimes, afterschool programs that students actually like, and a social media campaign to reach students where they are.

“If we actually put a lot of work into it, it will make a difference,” said Grace St. Lot, 12.

The students say that conflict resolution programs — to teach kids how to handle their problems safely and respectfully — are needed.

“So instead of grabbing a gun, they can talk it out,” said Jeff Charles. “It would teach the kids skills other than violence.”

As part of the class project, Shaketha reflected on losing her little brother, saying she thinks about him “every day and every second.”

“I believe that all levels of government and everyone in the community should work together,” Shaketha wrote as part of the class project. “I hope and pray that everyone helps approve this public policy and help get these guns off the streets.”

Their effort started with a district competition called Project Citizen, a civics program that encourages students to learn about public policy by engaging in it. Kids pick a problem that’s relevant to them, research policy solutions and come up with an action plan.

To zero-in on their topic for the project, Thomas told his students to bring in news articles of current events. Headline after headline dealt with young victims of gun violence. After a class discussion, Thomas decided to let his students pursue it — despite his own reluctance.

Thomas, 26, grew up not far from the school where he now teaches.

“I’ve had classmates, friends, die from guns. So it’s a touchy topic and it’s personal to me,” Thomas said. “But through the class discussion, I saw how personal it was to them. I was like, ‘This is the topic.’ Because if the students understand and they feel something, they'll work to achieve and work to accomplish this.”

Working through the project with his students, Thomas noticed some lessons were painful. One day, for example, they were comparing funding for extracurricular activities.

“They’ll see the YMCA in Miami Beach is getting this amount of money, but is there a YMCA in Opa-locka? And they see that, ‘hey maybe our community needs a little bit more of those resources,’ ” he said. “At times they were like, ‘Does any one care?’ 

But with more research, better understanding and lots of encouragement from Thomas, he noticed an attitude shift from hopelessness to empowerment. Now, he just hopes people will listen to what his students have to say.

“They have better ideas than we do,” he said.