After a recent basketball game, Minneapolis North High coach Larry McKenzie stood with his players in a cramped locker room and prayed.
With his eyes shut and his head bowed, he held hands with the young men and prayed that they would be safe.
His efforts to make sure his students stay safe and on track have taken on new urgency this school year, as a rash of gun incidents near the school have threatened students' sense of security.
"These guys are having to deal with all this stuff all on their own and some days it's really tough," said McKenzie.
Two former North High students were shot and killed — one last summer and another in January. News of their deaths has hit the school community hard, leaving many students reeling from grief. Then, on Jan. 17, bullets hit the school itself — shattering the students' sanctuary. Though no one was hurt, now some students say that school no longer feels safe.
To address students' fears and make them feel more secure, a team of parents, school staff and other concerned community members have rallied around the kids at North High this school year — offering extra support in the form of grief counseling, prayers, mentoring, help with school work and posters with uplifting words placed around the school.
"We're trying to go back to being as normal as possible," said Sharon El-Amin, a North High parent and president of the school's parent organization. "We're still trying to make them feel that when they come to school that it's still that safe place. We can't walk in fear."
The afternoon following the shooting, she and McKenzie organized an impromptu prayer circle outside the school to show love to students and reassure them. El-Amin and other parents have banded together to decorate the school's hallways with encouraging messages and images to boost students' morale. They also are pressing district leaders to implement a trauma response team, and have formed two new parent groups to connect with students and other parents around the city.
McKenzie has tapped a local violence prevention and intervention group to talk to his players about gun violence and he's invited grief counselors to come to basketball practice. Three times a week, his players gather for a mandatory study hall session, where they learn how to balance a checkbook, work on their homework, lift weights and play chess, among other things. In addition, McKenzie is asking city officials for improved outdoor lighting at the school.
Principal Shawn Harris-Berry said she and the school's site council are working with district leaders to tighten security at North High, Minneapolis' oldest high school. Some of the early conversations include putting fencing around the school, she said. Harris-Berry lauded the district for quickly replacing the damaged glass and for cleaning up the debris after the shooting. She said that helped quell students' fears and restore a sense of normalcy.
Meanwhile, school counselors and staff from NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center are available at the school to provide counseling and other mental health services to students, she added.
"Our students are very resilient," Harris-Berry said.
Coaches and mentors
In the last four months, McKenzie's players have lost five friends — one to suicide and four to gun violence. The incident in January when the school was hit with gunfire has inflicted more pain and confusion on the young men, he said. Students may feel unsafe but they also have a responsibility to make sure the efforts by their elders to support them work, adults say. McKenzie drills into his students that these supportive efforts won't go far if the teens don't step up to help, too.
"We can come, we can advise but any change that's going to take place has to be done by our young people," he said. "They're closer in age with some of the people that are involved with some of the behaviors in our community, and they have to be the ones that communicate that things can be different."
Football coach Charles Adams, who's also the school's resource officer, said the neighborhood has been dealing with gun violence for years. Adams and other school community members agree that the problem is not the school itself. Nevertheless, the coaches and other adults say they are doing everything they can to make the kids feel safer at school while steering them in the right direction.
"We have to be consistent as mentors, coaches and figures in the community," said Adams, a North High graduate and North Side resident.
Some students say they're reluctant to confide in adults at the school.
Among them is Amaea Brown, who was in class that day when two bullets fired from outside pierced the window atop the school's main entrance.
Only six days before those bullets struck the school, Brown lost a friend to gun violence. The back-to-back shootings left her frantic with worry, as she slipped out the back door on Jan. 17 and skipped school the next day.
"I left school after I saw the damage that happened," the 15-year-old sophomore said. "I was shook."
She said she's turned to her mother, Samm Joyner, for counsel. Joyner said she knows firsthand the pain her daughter is going through. She, too, has lost friends and family to gun violence. Validating her daughter's sorrow, Joyner said, is the best medicine she can give her.
"Sometimes it's good to give them that space," Joyner said. "But it's important they know that they have someone that's a support system."
Despite everything that has happened, North High students persevere. School leaders say they have much to be proud of: graduation rates are up, scores of students are taking advanced courses and several others have accepted competitive football scholarships from colleges around the country.
Back in the North High locker room, Tauries Murry Jr.'s face gave no hint of the tragedies that befell his community this school year as he got ready to play an away game against Minneapolis South. McKenzie hollered from the locker room: "Shirt and ties tomorrow or you won't get on the bus!" Murry turned back swiftly and dug through a box full of ties, picking two different-colored ones to match his shoes.
McKenzie uses the dress code as a way to relay a message to the boys to carry themselves as young men and promote positive behavior.
"Coach McKenzie wants us to be the change," said Murry, 17. "We have to set an example for other young boys of color."