Still Standing: Every Year, Students Slain

“If communities get better, schools will, too.” – Keith Carrington, the principal

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Sitting at his desk, the blue insignia for North Division High School bright against his black pullover, principal Keith Carrington is framed by a collection of posters pinned behind him. One features Malcolm X. Another shows Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black woman millionaire in America.

At the center of the wall hangs an image of a young man, his smile wide. He leans toward the camera, a bright yellow sun shining behind him. The boy, who is just 15 in the photo, was murdered late last year. He was a freshman at North Division – one of three students Carrington has lost to gun violence this year alone.

“Another death by the gun,” says Carrington, looking at the image. “Every year I’ve had a student die from gun violence. It doesn’t get any easier.”

Since stepping in as principal of North Division in 2016, Carrington estimates he’s lost close to 10 students to gun violence. And that’s just deaths. When Carrington considers how many of his students have not just lost a loved one but simply learned to live amidst the shadow of gun violence, the number is much higher – almost the entire school of 350 students. Helping students cope is part of Carrington’s job.

What’s harder, he says, is finding ways to manage his own trauma. “Principals take all this pain, but we have to remain strong for our students and their families,” says Carrington. “It affects your health and your psyche. You see a kid one day, and then they’re gone the next. There’s no book that can prepare you for this.”

One death that hit Carrington particularly hard happened in October. Sidney Wright was a junior and a basketball star.

“I got a call from my coach, and he was just sobbing,” recalls Carrington. Sidney was murdered five blocks from the school. Carrington also learned that the student was killed during a virtual school day. “That was really tough. If we had been in regular school, he’d still be with us today.”

Keeping North Division safe, however, is no easy task. Carrington estimates that he spends half his time on academics and the rest on student safety. In a normal year, Carrington starts and ends the school day with a school perimeter check. The goal is to identify any suspicious activity. Carrington also has a team of Violence Free Zone counselors whose entire job is to keep track of the school’s highest-risk students.

“We have to be proactive,” says Carrington. “It really adds to the stress of the job because there could be that threat. But at the end of the day, our kids want to be safe. I also want to go home to my family.”

While the additional protocols have proven successful – there have been no in-school incidents in recent years – alleviating the effects of gun violence at North Division will require more than perimeter checks. “Violence happens in the community and it spills into the school,” says Carrington. “We’re then tasked with both educating kids and keeping them safe. That’s a tall task.”

Schools do not exist in a vacuum. Improving a place like North Division also requires investing in better neighborhood housing and jobs. “If communities get better, schools will, too.”

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This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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