Like many elementary school libraries, R.N. Harris’ multi-media center is decorated with stuffed animals, vocabulary word posters, and hundreds of picture books. On Monday, this space became a haven for 10 students. They didn’t read or play; instead, they meditated and reflected on gun violence in Durham.
The students, guided by principal Mshinda Middleton-Brown and counselor Queen Pryor, sat on wooden chairs in a circle, facing one another. Some sat with their legs crossed or knees up, and others let their feet dangle. Pryor led with a moment of silence. Some closed their eyes and bowed their heads; some practiced inhaling and exhaling.
Somajai, who had her hair in two low pigtails and wore a pink shirt and pink Converse sneakers, told the circle that she has recently lost a loved one. To cope, she said, she keeps items they left behind.
Another student, Kameryn Pate, said that when he thinks about Durham’s gun violence and youth killings, he feels “off-balance.”
“When I get upset, I go to my room to cool down,” Kameryn said. “If it is really bad, I will talk to family and friends so it doesn’t build up.”
The students at R.N. Harris were among thousands across the school district–and at businesses, non-profits, and universities– who took part in a moment of silence at 10 a.m. on Monday, May 15. Spurred by recent tragedies, Durham Public Schools (DPS), the City of Durham, and Durham County set apart May 15 as a Day of Remembrance to support youth safety and remember lives lost to violence.
The morning’s moment of silence was bookended by speeches from government officials and high school students in the evening.
This year, 18 children have been shot in Durham; four have died.
In late March, Angel Caneles Quintana and Osmar Burgos Banegas, both 16, were found dead near a middle school. Quintana went to Riverside High School; Banegas was enrolled at Lakeview Secondary School. Also shot, another boy was taken to the hospital, where he recovered. This happened only a month after Anthony Feaster, a fifteen-year-old student at Hillside High School, was killed in an off-campus shooting. No one has been arrested.
Asked what the Day of Remembrance meant to them, the students at R.N. Harris said they were happy that the school system encouraged them to discuss and remember those who died. At the end, a student named Skylar asked Middleton-Brown and Pryor for hugs.
At 5:30 p.m., leaders from DPS, the city, and the county convened at the CCB Plaza downtown. Among the speakers were Mayor Elaine O’Neal, County Commissioners Brenda Howerton and Nimasheena Burns, and student activists. More than 100 people—Durham residents, first responders, and government officials—gathered to listen.
“We do not need to expand access to firearms,” Burns said. “We need to address violence at its earliest stages.”
Burns and other officials demanded stricter gun control laws in the state. Burns urged residents to safely store their firearms and to lock their doors—specifically referencing Durham’s steady rise in firearms theft.
She also encouraged local business owners to hire Durham residents: “The quickest way to stop a bullet is with a job.”
Several students spoke. They included Andres Rivera-Rosario, a senior at Durham School of Technology, a college and career-focused magnet program on Hillside’s campus. Rivera-Rosario said that Hillside, with over 1,400 students, has only a handful of counselors on campus.
After COVID support programs ended, DPS cut mental health counselors from many schools. Now, only 10 offer mental health counselors on site.
Last month, Durham County’s Community Child Protection and Child Fatality Prevention teams recommended, among other things, that students and educators have “quick access” to more social workers, nurses, and counselors.
In an interview with the 9th Street Journal, Dr. LaVerne Mattocks, who oversees counseling, wellness, and discipline for the school district, said that, following recent events, her department has seen more staff and faculty recommending students for mental health services—and students are coming on their own too. More families are also accepting support services for their children, she said.
At the downtown event, Aniyah Lowe, 18, who wore glasses, a dark-colored blouse, and her hair in a ponytail, also spoke. Lowe, who serves as Hillside High’s Drama Club president, said violence has plagued her life.
Lowe said she first realized feelings of paranoia and fear after experiencing a hard lockdown in middle school. Shortly after, her grandmother’s neighbors were victims of a drive-by shooting. And, just this year, she was in Hillside’s parking lot deciding what to eat for lunch with her friends when they heard 10 gunshots.
“This is not normal. My experiences are not normal,” Lowe said. “Bullets have no name on them. Your status cannot protect you… Your zip code cannot protect you.”
Another speaker, Kelyse Raiyel, 18, Hillside’s Drama Club vice president, rejected the normalcy associated with violence and renounced popular music that glorifies assault and murder.
“Snitch is a detrimental word that keeps us from saying something when we see something,” Raiyel said, pausing for a few seconds. Another speaker comforted Raiyel before she wiped her eyes and continued.
“We are accessories to the crimes happening in our communities,” Raiyel said.
After the speeches, audience members lingered, chatting and hugging. Some hovered over a quilt that memorializes Durham’s homicide victims, each square representing a life. The multi-colored quilt was created by artist Sidney Brodie, who began tracking local homicides in 1994. On Monday, it covered the length of the plaza.
One observer, a young teenager, pointed to a square near the bottom of the quilt, recognizing a name.
“I’m about to cry,” she told her friend as she leaned on a partition pole to steady herself.
ABOVE: On a Day of Remembrance on the CCB Plaza downtown, the audience lingers near a quilt that memorializes Durham homicide victims. Photo by Akiya Dillon—The 9th Street Journal.