NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A troubling trend is surfacing in communities across Hampton Roads and the country, more and more young people are involved in violent crimes.
In Norfolk alone, shootings among youth are already at levels not seen since 2016. Earlier this week, a 15-year-old student allegedly shot and injured two 17-year-olds at Heritage High School in Newport News.
10 On Your Side spoke to community leaders and law enforcement officers to find out the ways they’re working to dissuade teens from getting involved in violent crimes.
A bright, green spot along Church Street in Norfolk is planting the seeds for more than just tomatoes and sunflowers.
Deirdre Love and a group of local teens set up and maintain the small garden called Purpose Park, equipped with fresh produce for the community, a stage and a pond.
“Young people take pride in this garden that we created and keep it clean and harvest the produce,” she said.
As the executive director and founder, she inspires youth through the arts and community engagement with her group Teens With a Purpose.
Love started the group during the AIDS pandemic, a time when she felt powerless.
“Empowering teenagers to help empower other teenagers to make better choices was where we started and using what young people resonate with, which was hip hop and poetry,” she said.
Now, the virus affecting communities has changed, but the impact and trauma on the teens living in them haven’t.
“They don’t wake up one morning and say ‘I just want to create violence and create harm,'” she said. “It’s the result of what you don’t have, who’s not standing behind you, the trauma that you’re living with.”
Bilal Muhammad was on the scene of just about every youth-involved shooting in Norfolk over the summer, trying to start conversations in impacted communities.
“The most popular words they want to use, ‘I don’t want to get involved. I don’t want to snitch.’ This word got to be played out,” she said.
He held cookouts, block parties and vigils weekend after weekend encouraging neighbors and parents to be more involved in the lives of the teens being injured and killed in their own backyards.
“Engaging with our children at a very young age, create activities for our children throughout the summer, hopefully that will reduce these gun violence taking place,” he said.
Until 2021, youth-involved crimes in Norfolk had constantly decreased over the last four years.
Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone says part of that success comes from more active community leaders.
“I think what’s promising to me is you see the community taking to the streets and vocally saying ‘enough is enough,'” he said.
Still, Boone says kids are constantly getting their hands on guns, and it’s sometimes challenging to reach young people who are desensitized to the crimes around them.
“Some kids, they’ve gotten to a point they don’t care. That’s what that is. It’s, ‘I’m going to die anyway,'” he said.
One possible answer lies in giving them a safe space to be normal teens away from the violence they’ve become accustomed to.
“You have to show them what’s normal,” said Boone. “And you got to show them what a normal life looks like because to them, unfortunately, that is normal.”
Love says acts of violence committed by juveniles are cries for help and the community members need to ask how they can help instead of pointing fingers.
“Especially for young Black and brown kids, they’re asked to act like an adult because something can happen to you,” said Love. “We give them a chance to be young.”
Learn more about the work Teens With a Purpose does here.