Whenever my phone rings at night and the caller is someone from Urban Prep, whether student or staff, my stomach does this little roller coaster turn and drop. I’m afraid to answer. I worry that the call won’t be about day-to-day life, but rather, it will be about life and death — and I fear, mostly death.
Last week, an unknown assailant fired bullets into the chest of Urban Prep Senior Deonte Hoard. In doing so, Mr. Hoard was given the unwanted and unwarranted distinction of being the first Urban Prep student to be murdered. A 17-year old young black man, who was to soon receive his red and gold striped tie signifying his admission to college, was robbed of a bright future.
This act of violence is an example of why we are so unapologetic in our view of the urgency and importance of educating black boys.
Given that homicide is the No. 1 cause of death for young black males, some might say we should count ourselves lucky that death hasn’t come for more of the 2,000 of them who’ve walked through our doors. But I don’t think it’s about odds or fortune. It’s about our intentionality around giving kids hope, tools for a brighter future, and making sure they know that they are respected, valued and loved.
Every morning, Mr. Hoard stood with his brothers in our daily ritual gathering, “Community,” and solemnly affirmed his belief in himself, in the power of non-violence to achieve social justice, and in his responsibility to his family, community and world. But no matter how intentional we are in creating a school culture of care, the outside world is often uncontrollably cruel.
People may feel guilty, assign blame or politicize this tragedy. But the truth is Mr. Hoard is dead because someone shot and killed him. His death is the fault of the person who pulled the trigger. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t have a responsibility: a responsibility to create the kind of community where no one is consumed by the chaotic fury of violence whether as victim or perpetrator, and the kind of community where young people are taught to value their lives and the lives of others.
The figurative and literal destruction of our kids can be stemmed if we view schools as more than walls, structures and performance data. Schools are our opportunity to have a say in the often devastating dialogue between life and death. We have to commit to building and supporting schools that can — and do — save lives. The solution is right in front of us, we just have to be courageous enough to answer the call.
One of Mr. Hoard’s classmates told me that losing him was like losing a lung because he just couldn’t breathe now that his friend was gone. I started tearing-up when he told me that. And he, this young man who just lost his best friend, unwittingly consoled me. I knew that Mr. Hoard lived on in him and his classmates. And I thought how lucky we were to have Mr. Hoard. How lucky we are to have each other. How lucky we are to be more than just school.
Tim King is the founder and chief executive of Urban Prep Academies, a nonprofit organization operating the country’s first network of public charter high schools for boys.