Caught in the crossfire: Many teens involved in recent area shootings

DOVER — Life on the streets is no way to survive.

Or remain free for long.

Dover Police Cpl. Terrence Knight sees the path some kids take and says it’s “gut-wrenching and depressing” at times. He cried during one recent interaction with a wayward youth.

The area’s recent shooting surge regularly involved teens either pulling the trigger or being wounded by the gunfire.

About a third of the incidents affected someone connected to Parkway Academy in the past or present; many knew family or friends involved, Cpl. Knight said.

Cpl. Terrence Knight

The alternative school takes in students dismissed from regular educational settings countywide due to behavior issues or arrests.

Cpl. Knight has been Parkway’s school resource officer for six years, monitoring the pulse of troubled kids around Dover and beyond.
It’s evident to him too few organized activities and/or positive role models nearby often breeds trouble.

The Greater Dover Boys and Girls Club moved operations from Simon Circle to New Burton Road, removing it from where many inner-city kids reside and crimes often happen, Cpl. Knight said.

“Kids have nothing to do within the city limits, there’s no extracurricular activities to spend their time in a good way,” he said last week.

“Then there’s also often no sense of a stable family structure, money concerns, things of that nature. Many kids have nowhere else to spend their time but on the streets.

“For some children all they see around them is impoverishment, adults who are not well educated or suffering from addiction and that (shapes their view of the world and how to live in it.)”

Since Dec. 23, 2019, two teens have been fatally shot and three more wounded in the area; a sixth reported being shot at.

Ten Dover area youths ages 14 to 19 were arrested in firearms-involved cases, three with weapons discharged. One student was found with an unloaded 9mm Glock handgun and fully loaded magazine inside Caesar Rodney High in nearby Camden, police said.

There have been 19 shooting incidents involving teens and/or adults in the same period overall, leaving 11 people injured, homes and vehicles damaged. Dover PD handled 15 cases, while Delaware State Police investigated four.

Trouble after dark

Many of the incidents erupted after dark — late at night to early in the morning — and there’s a general belief that some may be connected, Dover Police spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said.

“Anytime we investigate a crime where a young person is involved, it is troubling,” he said. “I am not going to put all of that under the umbrella of ‘younger generation’ because it is unfair and inaccurate, but on an individual basis, yes it is absolutely concerning.”

Gravitating towards gangs is a dangerous life choice, a fact Cpl. Knight tries to convey to the students he meets.

“The only reality in the gang lifestyle is jail or death,” he said. “It’s not a lifestyle you can sustain for long.”

Cpl. Knight said he believes more available part-time job opportunities for youths is crucial to their overall survival since “the kids are in the streets to get money.”

Deputy Attorney General A.J. Roop oversees all criminal cases in Delaware, including ones that originate in Family Court and come his way.

“A lot of juveniles that get together in groups affiliate themselves with one side or another and the (violence) is purely driven by what side you’re on,” he said.

“If you’re in the other group ‘I’m going to shoot at you’ is the thinking.

”They’re juveniles and their brains aren’t fully developed so they sometimes make impulsive and irrational choices in many parts of their life, some which have extremely serious consequences.”

The continued rise in social media communication between kids has been a “game changer,” DAG Roop said.

“A lot of the beefing starts with something that’s said bad about someone on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook,” he said.

Smyrna’s issues

In Smyrna, Cpl. Brian Donner estimated there were three to five gun-related arrests of teens in 2019. The trend toward violent activity has been in the past three to five years, with more verified gang activity detected as well.

“Obviously there’s a sort of gun culture among a certain swath of the younger people that’s not necessarily widespread but still very important to society as a whole,” Cpl. Donner said. “There’s definitely an element of the population that feels comfortable with a gun in hand, aren’t scared of a gun, used to having a gun around and feel they need a gun for protection.

“Also at times kids see music artists with guns and violent lyrics in a video and it can rub off on them as well to maybe push them toward that type of lifestyle.”

Making mistakes and judgment errors are a part of growing up, but serious consequences can result while holding a gun.

“When you’re that age you haven’t yet figured out the value of a life,” Cpl. Donner said. “Kids that age don’t realize that when you shoot someone they might die. They’re young and their brains are still developing and they might not have the capacity to (evaluate a situation and make a rational decision.)”

With every felony-related contact with a youth, there’s the hope of reversing their direction.

“When I’m involved I want to say to the kid ‘At your age you don’t have a long criminal record and it’s just as easy to break good or break bad right now,” Cpl. Donner said.

“I try to make them realize they still have the opportunity to head down the right path in life.”

According to Cpl. Donner, “Generally speaking the guns are tied to either the drug trade or connected to gangs and sometimes involved with both.”

The Delaware Department of Correction administers the Youthful Criminal Offender Program for juveniles deemed non-amenable by Family Court or sentenced by Superior Court to the adult correctional system.

Spokesman Jason Miller said there are five youths currently in the program; as many as 17 were involved at one point in 2019 and as many as 30 within the past three or four years. The numbers fluctuate frequently, he said.

Community organizations respond

When teenagers find themselves confronted with violence, however, it’s up to the community to do something, said Dr. Linda Hackett, senior vice president and academy director of DEMCO.

“We have to fight, as groups like DEMCO and other groups. You have to realize it exists and why,” she said. “You have to get at the root of what’s going on.”

DEMCO — the Delaware Multicultural and Civic Organization — has grown since its inception 25 years ago to target educational, economic and social stability for community members.

Through the program’s multi-faceted programming — from after-school activities that combine books and basketball, to financial literacy lessons and more — the organization strives to empower the whole family, Dr. Hackett said.

She emphasized the importance of a multicultural approach and showing the children in the program different places around the world.
“I think our children need to see the total picture so they won’t pick up a gun and do things because they feel this is all life has to offer, according to who is in their ear,” she said. “As a community, we have to be in our children’s ears.”

Marti Bell, an office manager at Northnode, an organization that provides specialized addiction recovery and comprehensive counseling services, noted that the organization is trying to offer group programming for teenagers.

“A lot of these teens don’t have the support they need at home — their parents are busy working, on the road all the time. They are looking toward their peers for advice, and it’s not always the right advice. Peer pressure is overwhelming for them,” she said.

“[Through group settings] they’re learning the right way to do things and what’s wrong and right, rather than hearing it constantly from people their age.”

Ms. Bell added that the opioid crisis and homelessness are factors that can contribute to violence, even among teenagers, which is something they target through Northnode.

At Delaware Guidance Services, Yvette Aviles, a licensed professional mental health counselor and the Kent County outpatient coordinator, said that they extend the organization’s programming to schools, too.

“We put therapists in the schools as well to work directly with the children so we have school counseling services that we offer,” she said. “Basically, we can work with the child, but it’s also important for us to work with the families, to teach the families the skills we’re teaching the children, in terms of coping skills, so that they can also help the child.”

Each also noted that their organization responds to what they hear is going on in the community, to make sure their programming and aid is effective for the teenagers in need.

Dr. Hackett emphasized that DEMCO watches children grow into adults who succeed. She noted that having positive role models from the community — high school students teaching middle school students, or college students coming back to high schools — makes a difference.

“I do know that it makes a difference. When we support our youths, they rise to our expectations. When we support them in actions, words and deeds, they rise to the expectations. If we are available by phone or they know they can talk to you when things happen and they need some positivity, they rise to that expectation,” she said. “If we really want our community to be everything we know it can be, we have to be in this together.”

Delaware State News staff writer Brooke Schultz contributed to this story.