An empty classroom at Sumner Academy of Arts and Science on July 29, 2021, in Kansas City, Kansas. The district has a program called Enough is Enough with the goal of preventing student violence and deaths. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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Sharita Hutton said she left journalism because it was difficult to cover deaths so often. 

But during the 2019-20 school year, her first in a new job with the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools communications department, Hutton wrote 23 letters to the school community to tell them that yet another student had died. Eleven of the deaths were caused by gun violence.

The district’s response, launched in October 2020, is called Enough is Enough, or Ya Basta in Spanish. The initiative seeks to raise awareness of problems and resources, gather input from students and the broader community, and address some of the risk factors leading to deaths. 

KCKPS is located in Wyandotte County, an area that school district and community representatives say is still dealing with the effects of historic inequities and trauma, such as redlining. 

Hutton thinks there would be more of a public outcry if a spate of youth deaths happened elsewhere.

“If this happened anywhere else, if this happened in some of our other cities … people would be mad that our babies are dying,” Hutton said. 

Enough is Enough is an effort to inform the public of what is happening and “motivate the community to come together to make sure that our students have a successful future or even have a future,” she said. 

The causes of youth deaths

The most recent statistics available, from 2019, show Wyandotte has the highest homicide rate of any county in Kansas, said Hannah Conner. Conner is the violence prevention epidemiologist at the Unified Government Public Health Department. 

2019 statistics also show homicide as the most common cause of death for youth in Wyandotte County, Conner said.

While data on other causes of death in 2020 is not available, police data provided to the Health Department shows a spike in youth homicides that year, Conner said. The department includes ages 1-24 in the definition of youth because the 18-24 age range is “a very vulnerable age group for violence,” she said.

Homicide isn’t the only threat to students’ lives. In the 2019-20 school year, three students died by suicide, two drowned in unrelated incidents a week apart from each other and others died from natural causes, Hutton said. Enough is Enough resources also highlight drug and alcohol abuse as a danger. 

The number of deaths in the 2020-21 school year — during which students were largely in remote learning — was not as high.

But at a June 8 school board meeting, Board President Randy Lopez opened the meeting with a moment of silence for a student who had just been killed.

Later in the meeting, just before a presentation on Enough is Enough, Lopez made a plea to the community to come together to stop the violence.

“We can’t have one more student death, especially to gun violence, in our community,” he said. “It hurts all of us when we lose one student. … I’m just pleading with everyone watching, listening, please, let’s work together. We can’t keep doing this to our community. We have to love each other.”

In an interview with The Kansas City Beacon in late July, Lopez said the district is working with many community partners and would like to continue expanding its efforts.

He’s interested in hiring staff dedicated only to Enough is Enough but is also open to having another group spearhead the initiative while the district takes a supporting role. “I know we can’t be the only driving force around this,” he said. 

But for now, Lopez said, KCKPS is enthusiastic about taking the lead for as long as it needs to.

“I think it’s necessary for us to do this right now,” he said. “It’s not normal for a community to have 20-plus student deaths, many due to gun violence. That should never be an accepted thing.”

Engaging students in violence prevention

A major contribution of Enough is Enough is that it has provided common messaging for anti-violence work, said Jomella Watson-Thompson, a University of Kansas associate professor and director of a comprehensive youth violence reduction program called ThrYve

Enough is Enough “helped to coordinate both communication and promotion of our efforts to really collectively address violence and stand up for our young people,” Watson-Thompson said. “That in itself, in my opinion, was something novel and needed in our community to kind of thread across efforts, including particularly engaging the youth voice.”

During the last school year, Enough is Enough gathered input from students and others through youth advisory boards, virtual community forums and student speeches. One idea that has come from the youth advisory boards is for high school students to mentor younger children, Watson-Thompson and Hutton said. 

KCKPS is also circulating an online Enough is Enough pledge for anyone in the community to sign, encouraging people to display blue ribbons as a sign of support and offering downloadable Zoom backgrounds with the Enough is Enough logo. 

Leslie Ponce-Diaz, a rising college senior working with Enough is Enough through a summer fellowship, is focused on creating materials that engage young people, including posters and online resources.

Leslie Ponce-Diaz stands in front of Sumner Academy of Arts and Science in Kansas City, Kansas, on July 29. Ponce-Diaz is an intern for Enough is Enough, a violence prevention program for the district. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

“I wanted to focus on (violence) from the very beginning when I was creating a proposal, because I feel like my community deserves better,” she said. “And there’s so many students and so many families that work so hard, and they just have the utmost potential for having a good life, and I just wish that that could be more highlighted.”

Ponce-Diaz attends the Rhode Island School of Design and graduated from Sumner Academy of Arts and Science in Kansas City, Kansas, where her family still lives. 

She said her brother and some of her cousins are still a part of the KCKPS district. 

Talk of violence affecting children is a “heavy conversation” for those students and throughout the community, Ponce-Diaz said. “Although you do start becoming numb to it, you understand the pain that these students feel. And unfortunately, students try to reduce that pain and fall into the wrong hands.”

Ponce-Diaz said art was a way for her to express her feelings in a constructive way. She started a community organization called First Gen Chisme to provide resources for first-generation college students and eventually hopes to establish a nonprofit in Kansas City that supports youth through art, advocacy and design.

Providing community support for students

Hutton echoed Ponce-Diaz’s concern that not having healthy ways to channel their energy can lead students into bad choices.

“I think there’s times where they get bored and then it’s easy to get into trouble,” Hutton said. “It’s easy to do things that are wrong versus right.” 

This summer, KCKPS is trying to increase the number of activities available for students by allowing outside organizations to use school facilities. The board approved a procedure for handling requests in June. Hutton said organizations have since taken the district up on the opportunity, hosting sports camps and other activities. 

Conner, the epidemiologist, described being involved in constructive activities as a “protective factor” — the opposite of a risk factor — for violence. Other protective factors include praise and recognition, stable housing and income, healthy family dynamics, school attendance, and feeling a sense of belonging.

The prevalence of risk factors outside the control of the school is one reason Hutton says community involvement is essential. She wants partners who can mentor students or even offer them jobs. 

“Some kids may get a job to earn extra money to buy shoes and be able to go to the movies, and the reality is we have students that are working and making money because their parents need that,” Hutton said. That might make it more tempting to join a gang if someone tells them it’s an easy way to make money.

The school district can’t change the whole economy. “How do you get these kids the resources and the jobs and the ability to truly understand there are resources, it’s not all on their shoulders?” she asked.

Hutton said she feels hopeful when she sees support for Enough is Enough around town.

“The blue ribbon is our symbol,” she said. “Sometimes I drive down the street, and I’ll see it in front of somebody’s house. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re telling our kids in a way, without screaming it out loud, that they’re here for them.’ 

“It’s those little signs,” she said. “But in the big scheme of it, we have so much stuff to do.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.