Gangs, Shooting Deaths Test High School’s War Against Violence
PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The gang-related shooting deaths of a popular high school football player and a promising recent graduate have stunned students and teachers who thought they were winning a long war against violence.
Dorion Reid, a 16-year-old All-City player, was gunned down by a reputed gang member early Jan. 28 at a fast-food restaurant about 10 blocks from Peabody High School.
His death came only weeks after the murder of 18-year-old Javon Thompson, a recent Peabody graduate and Carnegie Mellon University art student who was outspoken in his opposition to gang violence.
Reputed gang members have been arrested in both shootings.
``It was a setback because we were doing real well,″ said Bill Marszalek, president of Peabody’s parent-teachers’ association who has two daughters in the school.
Despite intensifying gang rivalries in surrounding neighborhoods, Peabody High School has fought to preserve a history of producing the best and brightest students.
The school has one of the city’s best student literary magazines; its graducates include Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conductor Lorin Maazel, author John Edgar Wideman and actor Gene Kelly.
Gang-related conflicts among Peabody students in 1993 were so intense that during football games, some quarterbacks wouldn’t pass to teammates from enemy neighborhoods.
After fights in the school and an after-school shooting incident three blocks away, Principal Vernon Phillips assembled a group of volunteer counselors to establish the school as neutral ground.
The school installed closed-circuit cameras and metal detectors. Through a program known as Project Impact, counselors used street-level diplomacy to talk out disputes and forge gang truces. They also organized trips, night basketball games and outings for plays, horseback riding and bowling.
``It worked wonders,″ Marszalek said.
As tension subsided, suspensions went down, grades improved and gang rivalries gave way to teamwork last fall when Peabody won a city football championship.
But then Reid was shot, and reality struck.
``We can make this building as safe as we want. But we can’t control what happens on the street at 3 a.m.,″ said English instructor Pamela Johnson.
When students returned last week, some sobbed in the hallways, and anger over Reid’s death sparked scuffles. Officials cancelled school to cool tempers and give the 875 students time to grieve.
Senior Emmai Alaquiva, 18, said Reid’s death stirred bitterness and frustrations among students.
``Nothing makes any sense. Dorion had a powerful mind. He could have made it,″ Alaquiva said.
Peabody was peaceful last week during final exams, and beefed-up security gradually loosened. But the school still grieves.
``It’s like a wound,″ said community worker Daryl Givner. ``It’s going to take time to heal.″