Coaches unite to fight a teen danger

Karen's birthday fell on a workday, so she and her husband, Raymond, celebrated on a Saturday - one year ago this month. They chose the Market Lounge Club, a favorite, and were dancing cheek-to-cheek when the phone started buzzing. Suddenly Raymond was yelling above the music: "Santino just got shot! Santino just got shot!"

Santino Henson was Karen and Raymond Stewart's son. Actually, Raymond was the boy's stepdad, but he loved him like a son, and cried like a baby that night when Santino, just shy of 21, was killed.

Santino had been sitting in a car, right near his grandmother's apartment, idly gabbing with friends, when a stranger walked up, asked for something, and then shot him four times. Maybe it was an argument over drugs. Maybe, a case of mistaken identity. Or maybe just bad luck. No one is sure.

Six months earlier, Santino graduated from Dunbar Senior High School. He made Junior Varsity football, played the bongos, rapped with a 10-man band, and was forced to take summer school - in algebra or trigonometry, no one quite remembers - to earn a diploma. Santino was a quiet guy and never attracted much attention - until he became a statistic.

Each year more than 20,000 people under 21 are killed or injured by gun violence in the United States, according to The Alliance for Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit social justice group. Gun violence, says Alliance president Nan Aron, remains the leading cause of death for young people in every major US city, despite police and community efforts to stem it.

That's why a new campaign called "Coaches Against Gun Violence," launched by the Alliance, is trying a different tactic. The group aims to fight the scourge by bringing the harrowing statistics into the high schools - and getting coaches to talk about a way out.

Working with the coaches, the campaign encourages sport teams to plan and hold dedication ceremonies for schoolmates killed by guns, and to follow-up with sessions, both formal and informal, on guns and violence.

The ceremony is intended to reenforce for students the fact that a valuable human life has been lost. Then, it is followed by words of wisdom from a coach - a figure generally commanding a fair degree of student respect.

Each dedication is unique, but all follow a similar format: a moment of silence, a half-time tribute, then short speeches by students, community leaders, and coaches.

This particular evening at Dunbar, coach Johnnie Walker, a retired Washington, D.C., police officer, begins by explaining that the game is dedicated to Santino.

"Eight young people die every day in this country from gun violence," says Walker, quoting the oft-repeated statistic. "We need to let all these kids know that in the long haul, they have a chance of making it. I tell them all the time, life is not easy, but don't quit. Don't get near guns."

"What I tell the kids is, 'If your friend has a gun, walk away,' "says Reggie Gordon, Dunbar's athletic director. "Say you will be back later and then don't return." The kids, says Gordon, are afraid of being called sissies, afraid of being teased if they say "no" straight out. "But they are also afraid of dying. So they take our advice."

Raymond and Karen, their two young sons, Dominique and Raymond Jr., Karen's sister Denise, and half a dozen of Santino's friends are on hand. Karen receives a certificate, and mumbles a few words. She begins to cry. Then the cheerleaders trot on. "One-Two-Three-Go-Team," they chant. Behind them a banner reads: "Make a Play to End Gun Violence."

"There are not too many people here," remarks Denise, of the half-empty gym. "But it's nice anyway."

"True, it's not yet a groundswell," says Mr. Aron. "But more coaches are getting on board, more schools are dedicating games, more sport teams are getting interested, and momentum is growing."

The Coaches Against Violence campaign kicked off last football season in Washington with eight schools participating. This basketball season 15 schools, including ones in Detroit, Michigan, Florida, and California, have held dedications.

The Golden State Warriors and other NBA teams have indicated they want to join the campaign and dedicate some of their games next season.

"These are communities where role models are often hard to find," explains former NBA Coach Don Casey, a spokesman for the campaign. "Of course, we need parents and churches to play their parts, but coaches can be real agents for change in this fight."

Casey's own son, Sean, died several years ago in a handgun incident. "You wouldn't think that happens to an NBA coach," he says. "Well, it can. And to say there is nothing to do about it just isn't good enough."

Denise and Raymond leave the game early. The young kids are tired, and Denise is ready, too. She used to be a cheerleader herself, "once upon a time," she says, and likes a good game, but today she is not in the mood. "Maybe this dedication service will remind everyone," she says. "Of what?" she is not sure. "That life is precious," she suggests. "That they are lucky to be alive."

As Santino's family leaves, Alliance staffers are already preparing to head down Highway 395 to Anacostia, a different district neighborhood where another dedication ceremony is now underway.

At Anacostia High School, instead of their usual red miniskirts, the cheerleaders have donned T-shirts emblazoned with the number "8" and have little white teddy bears clipped to their jeans. The 7th D.C. Police District, which includes Anacostia, recorded 52 homicides last year - six of them Anacostia students, all killed by guns.

This is the second dedication ceremony here this season, and yet it is still unclear to what extent the campaign's message is reaching its intended audience.

"What is the number eight for?" the cheerleaders are asked. It has something to do with young people in America dying... or guns..."or something," they answer.

One girl thinks eight kids die a year. Another thinks it's eight a second. Someone tries to calculate, adding up the number of slain schoolmates she knew personally.

No one is sure, but it's time for a cheer: "One-Two" they chant, clapping and leaping in the air, "Let's-Win-Go-Go."

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