Shots Fired; School Locked Down; Message Sent

Thomas MacMillan PhotoHillhouse senior Raiquan Clark was back at his old middle school delivering a message to younger versions of himself—study hard and plan out your future, or else—when all of a sudden the intercom blared.

“Code red!” a voice called. “Code red!”

The kids scrambled into a corner of the library “rotunda,” following Wexler-Grant School’s protocol for an imminent threat.

The K-8 school was on lockdown following a report of shots fired nearby at Orchard and Charles streets.

The incident occurred Thursday afternoon.

Raiquan and about a dozen of his Hillhouse High School classmates had walked by that block only moments earlier on their way to deliver a pep talk to “at-risk” boys at Wexler-Grant.

The alert was an object lesson, Hillhouse Principal Kermit Carolina said of the fine line between promise and tragedy, between preparing for one’s future and losing it. The point of Thursday’s meeting was to help Wexler-Grant’s at-risk boys stay on the right side of that line.

Carolina organized Thursday’s meeting between a group of “positive young males” from his school and about 30 middle-schoolers who are struggling either personally or academically. The Hillhouse students are juniors and seniors, members of a school club called “Kiyama,” which Carolina translated as “resurrection” or “self-improvement” in Swahili.

Wexler-Grant Principal Sabrina Breland said some of the at-risk students in her school have “seen family members in situations that were very traumatic.” Others are dealing with “some learning challenges.” Several students in her school are related to the half-brothers who were shot—one fatally—on Tuesday night outside Lincoln-Bassett School.

“We’re trying to find someone to let them know that it’s possible to achieve certain things even if you have difficulties in your life,” Breland said.

At about 1 p.m. Thursday in the rotunda, a semi-circular room off the library, Carolina (pictured) introduced his team of junior and senior role-models.

“They all overcame a lot of challenges,” Carolina said. “Where you are right now, they were there. ... They’re your future. They can help you.”

Given the opportunity to ask questions, the Wexler-Grant kids mostly wanted to talk about sports: “What sport do you play? How did you start playing football?”

Clark, who’s 17 and on the basketball team, and his Hillhouse classmates were careful to encourage the middle-schoolers to work hard in sports, but not only in sports.

“For me, I want to go to a Division 1 college,” Clark (pictured) said. He said he hopes to play in the NBA. “But if that doesn’t happen, I want to be a nurse or a doctor.”

Clark was in the middle of describing how he had been twice cut from the middle school basketball team, before working all summer to perfect his game, when the school loudspeaker came to life: “Code red! Code red!”

The Wexler-Grant students immediately headed for the floor, sitting at the base of the bookshelves lining the rotunda.

Police, meanwhile, were investigating reports of gunfire at Orchard and Charles. They found a shell casing near the intersection.

Teachers could be seen running through the hallways at Wexler-Grant. Some of the young students in the Rotunda squirmed and whispered, breaking into occasional giggles. Clark separated one apparent troublemaker from his friends.

Later, with the lockdown lifted, Carolina reprimanded the misbehaving students. “A lot of your decisions are life and death decisions,” he told them.

“We said, ‘code red,’” he said. If you’re not silent, if you’re goofing off with your friends, you’re putting yourself in danger.

You need to think carefully about whom you hang out with, the high school students warned, picking up on Carolina’s message.

Jerome Gibson (pictured) said his friend found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time during their freshman year. “He’s not here anymore. He’s in the grave.”

Cops said his friend, Marquell “Quelly” Banks, was killed by a gunshot while hanging out with three older kids in 2011.

“Don’t hang around with knuckleheads,” Clark warned. You’ll lose a lot of your middle-school friends in high school, he said. “You’ve got to pick the right friends.”

Some of your friends will go to jail, some will drop out, and some will pass away, Gibson said. 

After more questions about sports, Carolina interrupted to break down the one-in-a-million odds of making it to the NBA. Most people who do—by some miracle—make it, don’t earn a millionaire’s salary. And they don’t last more than four or five years in the league.

Imagine if you took the same energy you put into an NBA dream “into trying to be a doctor, lawyer or teacher,” Carolina said. “They are all well-paying careers. Don’t get fooled into thinking sports is the only way.”

Carolina pointed out Hillhouse senior Harold Cooper (pictured), who’s headed to the University of Rhode Island on a football scholarship. Cooper’s talent is opening doors for him, and he wants to play in the NFL someday, but, Cooper said, his “dream” is to be sports announcer.

“Use sports. Don’t let them use you,” Carolina said later.

“They remind me of me,” Gibson reflected as he walked out of the school. He said he almost stayed back a grade in middle-school, before recognizing the value of hard work and hitting the honor roll in high school.

Gibson recalled losing his friend Quelly to violence. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Gibson and his classmates walked down Henry Street back to Hillhouse, passing the street where cops were searching for more shell casings and interviewing witnesses.

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posted by: darnell on March 28, 2014  8:41am

This is Kermit’s calling. Continue to work on saving these young souls. Leave the politics alone for a while, if that is your calling in the future, so be it.

Great job!

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on March 28, 2014  8:46am

Glad to see these young men giving back and imparting such a positive message. I am concerned however about the decision to publish pictures of middle school students labeled as “at risk.” Names and labels are powerful and it seems to raise an ethical question given high rates of bullying and low levels of self esteem amongst young people who struggle inside and beyond the classroom.  Beyond the blanket photo release form parents sign at the beginning of the year do they have any say over how/when those images are used?

posted by: Hill Resident on March 28, 2014  9:39am

This is a wonderful program ... for both the High School students and the Middle School students. It is imperative to start this type of conversation and potential mentorship when they are young. This gives the high school students the opportunity to be accountable by example, as well as the middle school students to have positive role models. Perhaps Principal Carolina could add another level (or 2 or 3) by implementing a one-on-one mentorship that includes a college student, a professional and a retiree. This way our younger ones will have an opportunity to look into their potential future and make some valuable connections. But keep up the GREAT work Principal Carolina. I agree ... this is your calling!!!

posted by: HewNaven on March 28, 2014  10:48am

I agree with the other comments that Carolina is a great leader for young men in New Haven. I just hope that he and Harp can ‘mend their bridges’ now that the election is over. It would be a shame to witness any pettiness or power struggle between the mayor and the principal of our largest public school. They need to show everyone that they’re on the same page, given their history. Since Harp is the boss, I think it’s up to her to reach out and connect with Hillhouse. That school is a true ‘Too Big to Fail’ situation.

posted by: Seth Poole on March 28, 2014  8:40pm

Great collaboration of Principals Carolina and Breland.  We need to have more opportunities for our high school aged young people to reach out to their younger counterparts.  I have heard great things about Kiyama,  How does one get involved?