Teens in West Akron have a new use for Twitter: sending warning messages to their friends.
“Stay in house. Shootings here. …”
“Scared to walk out of the house. …”
“Be careful. Shooting. …”
When they hear gunfire or sirens or see a police cruiser fly by, they tweet an update.
“We all try to look out for each other,” said Rachel Whittaker, a Buchtel High School senior.
With two shootings in a week — March 30 and April 6 — within a few blocks in the Copley Road area, the teens and others in the community are worried about what might happen next. And they wonder what can be done to restore peace to the neighborhood.
Whittaker and five of her classmates are hoping to help.
They have formed a group called Praying for Better Days. The group has met with community leaders, teachers, coaches, school officials and police officers, asking for help and offering assistance, including by serving as mediators when problems emerge between students.
“We live in this community,” Whittaker told Akron City Council members April 9. “We’re afraid.”
Numerous community groups are working to address the violence problem: the teen group, the citizens-led Stop the Violence Movement; Save a Life, started by police Lt. Charles Brown; Love Akron, made up of local pastors; PeaceMakers, a city-led group of teens from each high school; and the Greater Westside Council of Block Clubs.
Ward 4 Councilman Russel Neal Jr., who represents the area around Copley Road, is leading an effort to coordinate the groups under a new umbrella organization called Akron Coming Together (ACT) Now.
He would like to amp up mediation when youth conflicts crop up in the schools or community centers. He also wants to get more input from young people in the community, including by starting teen advisory boards at community centers.
Neal is pleased the Buchtel teens are willing to help.
“I commend them for stepping up and wanting to be a positive influence,” he said.
The teens in Praying for Better Days, who all grew up in Akron, can’t remember another time with so many shootings in such a short period.
“The other day, Copley was blocked and Delia was blocked in the same day,” Whittaker said, referring to April 6, the day of a shooting and related car accident. “Somebody else was shot. Akron has never been this bad.”
She said many of the fights leading to shootings are over petty issues that people should just let go of, but instead they escalate. She also thinks peer pressure causes some of the problems.
Terrane Gainer, 18, another member of the group, thinks parents are getting younger and just don’t care as much.
Regardless of the cause of the violence, the result has been fear.
Whittaker was at track practice at Lane Field about 4:30 p.m. April 9, getting ready to run 400s, when she heard what she thought were gunshots. She talked to her coach about whether they should wrap up early.
“It shouldn’t be like that,” she said. “I shouldn’t be worried about losing my life at track practice.”
(Akron police had no reports of shots fired that afternoon. The athletes might have heard a sound like gunshots, or might have heard gunshots but police weren’t called.)
Marshae Wiggins, 19, another group member and cousin of March 30 shooting victim Willie Brewer, recently needed to walk from Delia to her friend’s house nearby. She said her friend was “petrified” for her to walk those few blocks, although she arrived safely.
“We want to walk without fear,” Wiggins said.
Start of group
The teens came up with the idea for their group as they were working on posters to honor Brewer at Buchtel High.
“We just can’t keep letting stuff like this happen,” Whittaker recalled saying.
They decided to start a group, but weren’t sure what to call it. They tossed out different names, including “Hill in the Future.”
When Jeff, Wiggins’ brother, wrote “Praying for Better Days” on a poster, they had their name.
So far, only girls have joined the group. They hope to enlist some males, especially because it’s typically boys who are involved in the violence.
“Boys aren’t going to listen to us,” Whittaker said.
They’ve used Twitter to spread the word about the group.
“It’s getting crazy in Akron. Hoping for a better future. RIP Will. Praying for better days,” Whittaker wrote in one tweet.
The teens want to serve as positive role models and emphasize the importance of education — in both high school and college.
“Going to college is cool,” Whittaker said. “Getting good grades is cool. Instead of who has the best shoes, it should be who has the best GPA.”
The teens think the city needs to come up with more fun and positive activities for young people. They also agree that better coordination is needed among the various community groups and government agencies and would like to see these groups get more input from young people.
Vernzella Jackson, Whittaker’s mother, is proud of the young women’s efforts.
“Every young person is not out there doing something negative,” she said. “You can’t say all young kids. All are not.”
End of school year
Praying for Better Days is planning an event to mark the end of the school year and the last days at the current Buchtel, with students in the fall starting in a new high school.
The teens want to have a balloon release, with people attaching messages about how they would like the community to change. They also want the event to include a barbecue and a Walk for Willie to raise money for Brewer’s family to help with funeral expenses.
The teens also plan to start a college scholarship that initially would award $100 to help with the cost of textbooks. They hope to eventually offer larger amounts.
“We know how hard it is to afford college,” said Gainer, who wore a T-shirt in memory of Brewer.
Gainer, Whittaker and Wiggins are all college-bound, with Gainer headed to Ohio State University, Whittaker bound for Lincoln College in Illinois on a track scholarship and Wiggins going to Ohio State’s Mansfield branch.
They have people in mind to take over their group when they leave for college.
“They love the organization as much as we do,” Whittaker said.
The teens also plan to stay involved and hope for positive changes.
“I want to come back from college and see Akron different — in a good way,” Whittaker said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.