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How Louisville institutions are reacting to the spike in youth gun violence

A man holds a white bunny on a piece of brown paper atop a table. A young girl in a purple and blue jacket uses an orange stethoscope to listen to the bunny. People surround the two.
Kyle Shepherd
Louisville Zoo
Zoli Gyimesi, the Louisville Zoo's senior veterinarian, shows kids how they care for bunnies during a Zoo Buddies visit in March.

Over the past three years, Louisville has seen a spike in gun violence involving young people. Data shows residents ages 25 and under are more likely than any other age group to be involved — either as a victim or a suspected shooter.

Local experts say the trauma from losing a loved one to gun violence, or living in a community where shootings are common, negatively impacts a child's self-worth and their ability to learn.

City and school officials are now trying to catch up, investing in new programs focused on mental health and violence prevention.

A thousand kids shot in three years

Early in the morning before the crowds arrived, two California gray seals were giving a group of families a private show at the Louisville Zoo. Kids oohed and aahed as one of the seals belly flopped into the pool.

The kids and their families were with 2X Game Changers, an anti-violence initiative run by Louisville activist Christoper 2X. All of them have been impacted by gun violence, whether they experienced it firsthand, or live in a neighborhood where gunshots are a regular fixture of their environment.

“This is just a mind-boggling program,” said parent Steve Clayton said at a visit in February. He and his 8-year-old daughter Stevie looked on as the seals flipped through the water.

“It takes her away from the street life, and, you know, come in and take her mind off things and be able to cope.”

Stevie’s oldest brother was killed two years ago. He and Stevie were very close.

“She really looked up to him,” Steve said. “Before he started having kids, Stevie was really like his child.”

The Clayton family got Stevie involved in the 2X Game Changers Zoo Buddies program to find some healing. Once a month, the families get to come to the zoo before it opens and have behind-the-scenes access to some of the animals.

Stevie loves it. On the February visit, they were learning about polar bears and seals. But her favorite trip was the time they got to learn about flamingos.

“The first thing I knew is they turn pink because they eat a lot of shrimp,” she explained.

Game Changers started working against rising violence about five years ago. But since the COVID-19 pandemic started, gun violence has skyrocketed in the city.

In 2020, Louisville was coming out of a year in which 92 people were murdered. By the end of 2020, homicides hit a record high of 173. The record broke again in 2021, when more than 180 people were killed.

Earlier this year, a data analysis by the nonprofit Greater Louisville Project found young people are disproportionately the victims of Louisville’s gun violence crisis, and the suspected shooters.

At least 190 people 25 years old and under have been arrested in connection with a shooting since 2020, according to data from the Louisville Metro Police Department. Twelve suspects were younger than 16 years old.

More than 1,000 people 25 years old and under have been shot since the start of 2020.

“Hurt people hurt people”

Louisville Metro’s Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, or OSHN, is the backbone of the city's strategy for reducing gun violence, especially incidents involving young people.

Its Trauma Resilient Communities initiative is specifically focused on youth and families impacted by gun violence, and the mental health impacts of these incidents.

TRC Program Manager Nannette Dix said the office tries to address the “core drivers” of gun violence, like childhood trauma, poverty and racism.

“It’s like a petri dish, these social determinants of health,” she said. “You had COVID come over top of it, and it took whatever was growing in the petri dish, and now it's spilling out.”

Dix said part of what has driven young people’s involvement with violent crime in Louisville is how many of them lost their connection to social services, professional development opportunities and positive programming as a result of the pandemic.

Louisville has the highest rate of “disconnected youth” of any of its peer cities like Cincinnati, Nashville or Indianapolis. Youth disconnection is the number of kids ages 16 to 25 who aren’t employed or in school. Roughly 31% of Black youth in Louisville are considered disconnected, compared with 8.3% of white youth, according to the Greater Louisville Project analysis.

“You had community center workers…being like pseudo-parents to these kids,” Dix said. “But when COVID hit, that was a disconnect. The community centers shut down because the whole city shut down.”

The increased levels of gun violence, particularly in west and southwest Louisville, have also created a vicious circle of retaliation, Dix said. Young people who lose a family member or a friend in a shooting and have easy access to a firearm are more likely to engage in retaliatory violence.

Dix often uses a phrase when explaining the drivers of the gun violence crisis: “Hurt people hurt people.”

Metro Council members doubled OSHN’s budget in recent years, from $2.7 million in 2019 to $5.8 million in 2021, as Louisville officials conceded that policing alone won’t end the bloodshed. The agency also received $24 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds specifically for expanding the city’s non-police response to public safety concerns.

Through its community outreach, OSHN participates in a program called Pivot to Peace that assigns a caseworker to residents who are hospitalized because of a gunshot wound. University of Louisville Hospital and the Peace Education Program are also part of the initiative. The goal is to prevent retaliatory violence and provide victims with job training and housing. Since 2016, officials say they have a 96% success rate in preventing retaliation and re-injury among program participants.

The Trauma Resilient Communities team at OSHN recently signed a contract with the nonprofit Boys and Girls Haven to fund positions for mental health professionals at six Neighborhood Places in Louisville. The program, which is in the planning phrase, will provide free counseling to young people and their families.

OSHN is also working to create a peer mentoring program for kids involved in violence and young people coming out of jail or prison. Later this spring, the agency will work with Fund For the Arts to create therapeutic art programming for Louisville community centers.

Many of OSHN’s new gun violence reduction initiatives are funded through one-time federal dollars, which means future funding is uncertain.

JCPS launches social worker response

Dix said even kids who aren’t directly connected to a shooting can be affected. Traumatic experiences, such as regularly hearing gunshots in your neighborhood, can put kids in a state of chronic stress, she said.

“You have that hypervigilance all the time,” Dix said.

That can affect educational attainment and their behavior in school.

“If every day you wake up and you have to walk by somebody that got shot or you know somebody who got shot … that’s what you’re going to get,” Dix said.

Last September, Jefferson County Public Schools created the Violence Prevention Team. Its goal is to help students stay successful in school while dealing with the trauma that can come from being directly or indirectly impacted by a shooting.

Stacey Gamble is JCPS’s first director of violence prevention. She said school work and extracurricular activities can take a back seat when a student is touched by gun violence.

“There's trauma that’s involved with this, which then, in effect, will impact a student's educational progress,” Gamble said. “I can't focus on school because I have this event that just happened and I'm worried about being safe.”

Ten JCPS students have been killed by gun violence this school year, which started last July. Another 34 have been injured by shootings.

The Violence Prevention Team has four full-time therapists — all licensed clinical social workers — who are currently providing case management for around 100 students in total. On a typical day, Gamble said her team is working with students one-on-one and trying to develop relationships. She estimated they’ve served 250 students since starting the program.

“That relationship piece is huge, because it eliminates a barrier that a student may have in communicating how they're feeling or what they're going through,” she said.

Matt Anderson, JCPS’s assistant superintendent of culture and climate, said the violence prevention team has allowed the school district to become more streamlined in its response to the trauma of gun violence. The Violence Prevention Team is housed within his department.

Historically, when a kid was injured or killed in a shooting, or lost someone close to them, school officials often found out about it through another student or parents. School staff were mainly left to deal with it on their own. Now, there’s a team at the district-level they can call, who will continue to follow up with those kids.

“It's very much more long-term, and coordinated and cohesive,” Anderson said. “So, if something's going on in the community, we have a team that is going to be notified and is then going to reach directly out to the school to immediately start to come up with a safety plan and really talk through what supports need to be in place for that student.”

Anderson said case management looks different for each student depending on their age, home situation and family involvement. Case managers will lean on the mental health practitioners already in each JCPS school, or they’ll refer them to a community partner. They can also provide referrals for housing services or new clothing.

Members of the Violence Prevention Team conduct home and hospital visits, meet with parents and speak to students in school one-on-one.

“We continue to stay engaged with the student to make sure that they are coming back to school, but also if they need access to work, if they need access to a computer, if their residence will change,” Anderson said.

JCPS officials say their intervention is voluntary and non-punitive. But Anderson said they do sometimes involve law enforcement.

“Confidentiality is of the utmost importance while balancing that with safety,” he said.

Last month, JCPS received a federal grant that will allow them to further address how community violence impacts student success. The U.S. Department of Education awarded $3 million in funding to identify and intervene with kids who are acting out because of traumatic experiences.

The grant will allow JCPS to expand its restorative justice program to all of its elementary schools, train staff on identifying students with trauma and hire a data technician to track community shootings and the success of intervention programs, according to the school district.

Local anti-violence activist Christopher 2X said he “applauds” efforts of the school system to support students through violence-related trauma, but he’s worried some students will still fall through the cracks because they won’t open up to school staff.

“They won’t verbalize it, and sometimes their family won’t let them talk about it,” 2X said.

“Helping a generation”

Back at the Louisville Zoo, Steve Clayton and his daughter Stevie were getting a rare, up-close look at the bear exhibit. Passing the rear enclosure, a giant grizzly pressed right against the cage.

“Look, Stevie!” Steve said, just as enthralled as the kids squealing around him. “Oh my goodness!”

Steve said the zoo visit isn’t just for his daughter — it helps him heal, too, after losing his son.

“It helps me to be a kid again,” he said.

City officials and community leaders say it’s going to take a long-term, coordinated effort to solve Louisville’s gun crisis. For Dix and her team at OSHN, the focus is on trying to help people find a healthy way to cope and change their reaction to what’s happened to them.

“We can't get everybody, but if you sit there and you help one family, that's helping a generation,” she said.

Anyone impacted by gun violence can contact these resources for support:

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

News Youth Reporting
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.
Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.