On July 23, a group of mothers of children who had been murdered in Montgomery County gathered at the Upcounty Regional Services Center in Germantown. Many wore shirts with photos of their deceased children and other supporters who came brought signs urging an end to violence among youth.
The event was called the Stop the Violence Peace Walk and was one of the many strategies that county officials have put into place to curb the recent trend of deadly violence among local youth.
The increase in violence among teens earlier this year is part of a larger trend of increasing crime in Montgomery County during the last couple of years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When it comes to homicides, Montgomery County experienced one of its worst years in three decades in 2021, with 35 recorded that year, according to police. This year there have been 16 homicides as of Friday, according to an internal count by Bethesda Beat (county police say there have been 15). However, 14 of those occurred earlier this year, between Jan. 14 and May 11. The next homicide occurred in in mid-June and then there was another in early September.
The number of homicides recorded through the third quarter of this year is down significantly from last year, when 25 homicides occurred through Sept. 14, 2021. However, the number of non-fatal contact shootings rose by eight, from the 30 recorded through Sept. 14, 2021. Additionally, the number of carjackings in the county so far this year has already exceeded the total recorded through Oct. 31, 2021, when there were 52 by that point.
According to statistics provided by Montgomery County police, reported incidents from Jan. 1 through Sept. 26 included:
- 228 rapes
- 227 armed robberies
- 53 carjackings
- 211 weapons offenses
- 537 sex offenses
- 38 non-fatal contact shootings
The early part of the year also saw a string of incidents involving gun violence among teens, including a January shooting at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood that critically injured a student. Another student is facing charges in the incident.
Last month, a brawl during a football game at Gaithersburg High School against Northwest High School led to several arrests and suspensions. Both teams were temporarily suspended and required to forfeit the game and an upcoming game.
Byron Johns, chair of the Education Committee for the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP, told Bethesda Beat over the weekend that he’s worried about the escalation of violence recently, particularly after the brawl occurred.
Johns praised Montgomery County Public Schools for being proactive about enhancing security measures at sporting events following the incident. He thinks that social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in the increase in youth violence.
“It’s not unusual … for there to be little scuffles. For there to be an all-out melee seems to be somehow exacerbated by the whole pandemic lockdown. Everything seems to be heightened in terms of magnitude and frequency,” he said.
“The whole damn world’s coming apart. And the schools are just a microcosm. What these kids see going on, and God only knows what goes on in their communities, but the heightened anxiety and anger and hatred and violence is just an order of magnitude more than I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Officials say the county’s youth violence prevention programs are working, but it will take time to turn the tide. Luis Cardona, administrator of the Positive Youth Development Program, a program of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that focuses on youth intervention and violence and gang prevention, said in an interview last week that the peace walk in Germantown was important because it gave the mothers an opportunity to speak to the community.
“It was specifically those mothers who were educating members of the community, saying your child could be next,” he said. “As parents we have to take a more proactive approach to make sure we’re keeping our children out of trouble, but also [to make sure] we have the resources necessary to support our children.”
As part of his role, Cardona oversees the county’s Street Outreach Network – an initiative to “prevent, neutralize and control hostile behavior in high-risk youth and youth gangs” through positive relationships with the community.
Every summer, the Street Outreach Network sponsors community-building events called The Summer of Peace, in which residents in various communities across the county can meet with law enforcement and other important agencies in the community.
“It’s not just HHS. It’s our police, it’s the school system, it’s the State’s Attorney’s Office, our nonprofit sector and other community stakeholders so that we can educate all the residents about all the resources available to them,” Cardona said. “And that’s really important because every year we always run into youth and families that say, ‘I didn’t know about this program.’ ”
This past summer, Cardona said the Street Outreach Network specifically made sure to hold community-building events in residential communities in Germantown, because that’s where many violent incidents occurred among youth under the age of 17.
“One of the things we did is we engaged with community leaders, clergy and other folks that lived in communities including Germantown Park Association, The Harbor Group that oversees the Hampton Apartments in Germantown. All of these are communities that have been disproportionately impacted by violence,” he said.
The county implemented other programs during the summer to try to curb violent trends, such as weekly “cool down meetings,” which are aimed at helping youth stay out of criminal activity.
“As these [incidents] happen we’ll be talking to one another with the intent of saying, ‘Let’s engage with this particular group of young people from this neighborhood to make sure they stay out of trouble. Let’s redirect that energy to make sure they don’t retaliate against one another,’ ” he said.
Also, Cardona said a series of community safety roundtables have started this week, such as one in the Germantown Park residential community. The goal of the meetings is to engage residents and ask if they feel safe, he said.
“Does it mean that you completely rid those communities of more crime? Not necessarily. But it gives them a certain level of support and momentum to help make their communities safer,” he said. “Families are outraged. They want the violence to stop.”
Are the efforts working?
Police Chief Marcus Jones said in an interview Wednesday the youth outreach initiatives have had a positive effect overall.
“I think there have been more individuals and groups that have been in the community to address the very issues, which has been a benefit for us as well, but I also want to applaud my officers because I think they’ve been doing an outstanding job of getting to some of the main problems that we’ve had in certain communities, such as Germantown, for example. And conducting investigations that have led to arrests and the seizure of guns,” Jones said.
Jones said he was concerned in the spring about the number of violent crimes occurring among youth, but said the outreach efforts have helped.
“I think it goes to the very nature of us going to the source of the problems, and by us eliminating the problem, you might say, and on top of that you have those community advocates who have been advocating against gun violence to solve conflicts,” he said.
Jones also said the department’s officers have been more “aggressive in monitoring events across the county.”
“For example, we had a string of armed robberies that were occurring at several McDonald’s, not only in Montgomery County but across the region,” he said. “We put a concerted effort of officers in the area where these McDonald’s were located, and when we did that on that very first night when we put the detail together, we actually observed a robbery in progress.”
Despite the improvement in the homicide rate, Jones said he’s still worried about the number of nonfatal shootings and too many guns falling into the wrong hands.
“….We have individuals who do everything in their power, who may not have the ability to possess a weapon because they’re prohibited by law, that those individuals find a way to get it illegally because that’s just who they are,” he said.
Jones acknowledged that gun buyback events, such as one held between Rockville police, Montgomery County Public Schools and the State’s Attorney’s Office in August can help, but only to some extent.
“I think any guns that individuals don’t want in their homes that they want to get rid of, I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “It does get some guns off of our streets. But it’s not the end to end all.”
State’s Attorney John McCarthy said Friday that he’s encouraged by the lower numbers of homicides, and the recent decrease in youth violence. But he continues to worry about the number of gun seizures.
Through Sept. 11, more than 900 guns overall in the county had been seized, including 148 privately made firearms, or “ghost” guns. The highest number of gun seizures in one year in the county was around 1,100, McCarthy said.
McCarthy says the last two weeks have been promising.
“We’ve only had two seizures in two weeks, so in a very short snapshot, hopefully we’re going to see a decline even in the seizures of the ghost guns,” he said.
Pro-active efforts continue
It’s been in the last few weeks that McCarthy has been visiting the county’s 26 public high schools to deliver a series of gun education assemblies, in which he warns students about the dangers of gun violence and encourages them to report any threats to law enforcement.
Those assemblies, combined with other initiatives McCarthy’s office is involved in such as the truancy prevention program, the recent gun buyback event and the Summer of Peace activities, have had a positive impact, he says.
“We went to every single Summer of Peace event this summer, and that’s all over the county. And when we select the areas, we select the areas because those are the areas where we think there’s the most need,” he said.
When it comes to the schools, Johns said one recent positive development is the implementation of the Dads on Duty program at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown. Dads on Duty started last year when a group of fathers at a high school in Louisiana began volunteering their time to patrol the school following a series of fights, U.S. News reported.
Last year, following a series of fights and other incidents at Seneca Valley, Principal Marc Cohen was approached by a group of fathers with a similar idea, Johns said. So far it’s had a positive impact when it comes to reducing violence, Johns said.
“They know these kids. They’re youth pastors, they’re soccer coaches, they’re Little League coaches. And they just act as a positive reinforcement,” he said. “The community’s got to be a part of the solution.”
Johns said he also thought therapy dogs in more schools could be part of the solution.
“It’s amazing how the kids interact. It just changes the climate. The mood, the smiles. Animals are just doing amazing things in that regard….it’s not gonna solve everything, but if it just creates a positive climate, it’s better than not,” he said.
Cardona remembers working on similar youth violence prevention efforts in Washington, D.C., nearly 20 years ago, when eight homicides occurred in one week within a four-block radius.
“We did a series of community vigils, and we had the moms literally walk to the spots where their boys had been murdered. It really put some pressure on these young men to really let go of what they were feeling and be mindful and respectful of the mothers of the young men who had been murdered,” he said.
Cardona said he is pleased that the homicide rate in Montgomery County has come down from where it was earlier in the year, but there is still work to be done.
Many members of the Street Outreach Network, Cardona noted, are former gang members or were once incarcerated. They often try to engage troubled youth in recreational activities such as fishing or walking. But taking them out of their element can be a challenge, he said.
“It’s really hard to undue many years of trauma … and so the best thing we can do is create an alternative to that and get them to reflect and visualize a different world for them. And hence, that’s part of our approach,” he said.
McCarthy said he thinks judges in the county are taking notice when it comes to gun violence.
“Increasingly, individuals who are found with ghost guns illegally are being held pre-trial, and the sentences that are being handed out in cases related to handguns, particularly ghost guns, seem to be on the increase,” he said. “Because I do think, quite candidly, a lot of the publicity and the conversation about those weapons … I think those judges are paying attention.”
Cardona says many youths with whom his team interacts say they carry guns because it’s the only way they feel they can protect themselves from harm, which he says is a “fear-based narrative.”
“We have conversations with young people we serve. And we break down the consequences of carrying a weapon at this age … . And the one thing we always hear all the time is, ‘I know I shouldn’t have it, but I’d rather get caught with it by law enforcement or whoever is going to harm me, than caught without it,” Cardona said.
McCarthy said he’s trying to change that message through the assemblies.
“At Clarksburg [High School], when we seized our first ghost gun years ago, that was the explanation provided by that young man. ‘I thought I needed it for my protection in school.’ And our position is, there’s no excuse for bringing a gun to school,” he said.
Johns said he appreciates McCarthy’s efforts, but thinks legislation is needed in order to truly reduce gun violence. The Maryland legislature banned the sale of ghost guns this year.
“I just don’t see how, short of major national gun reform …. it’s too many guns in the street,” he said. “It’s too accessible. They can order them online. It’s sickening and scary. I think John [McCarthy] is doing what he can do right now. None of us will know whether that will have a dampening effect, but education alone is not gonna do it, in my opinion.”
Despite all of the recent prevention and outreach efforts, Cardona says the only way youth violence will stop is if the communities themselves act.
“HHS or any government agency, we can tell young people and residents all we want until we turn blue, ‘Stop shooting each other. Stop the violence,’ ” he said. “But when the residents themselves are saying ‘Hey look, enough is enough’ and you’re hearing the cries of a mother who is expressing her pain, her sorrow at the loss of her child, it has an impact on the community. And you can see it.”
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org