Administrators at James Weldon Johnson Elementary School know all too well what to do when someone is killed by gunfire in the streets around the school.
First, lock down all the individual classrooms. Check the bathrooms to make sure no children are unaccounted for. Move lunch and PE inside the classrooms, and close the outdoor hallways, yards and community garden for the day.
“The students are totally resilient,” said Johnson Elementary Principal Wanda Brooks. “Unfortunately, they’ve gone through this several times before.”
The latest killing was just before noon on Wednesday, when a man was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds on the sidewalk in the 1700 block of Monroe Street, said NOPD spokeswoman Hilal Williams. His body lay three doors from the intersection with Hickory, and at least 22 shell casings were marked in the street alongside the students’ garden.
At Johnson, the schoolchildren practice lockdowns regularly, not only so that they will be prepared, but so that when a shooting does occur, it won’t be completely disruptive. As the school day progressed, administrators hoped many students had not yet realized that the lockdown was not a drill so that teaching could continue.
“It is very important we stay in our role,” Brooks said. “The teaching will go on. Trust me.”
That’s the first day. When school lets out, the students will find out from their parents what happened, and administrators will face a new challenge when they return on Thursday.
“Then we will have to pick up the pieces,” Brooks said. “Hopefully as they get home, it won’t be a relative of a student. But that’s not likely. Then, I’ll have to get my social worker on that.”
The silver lining for Johnson Elementary on Wednesday was that no students were in the yard when the shooting happened, but part of the collateral damage was a tree-planting project along Hickory and Eagle. After the shooting, Brooks had to escort the volunteers back onto the bus they came in on, and struggled to find the right words as they departed.
“You want to apologize,” Brooks said. “Unfortunately, though, this is what our students who live in this area have to live through. I can protect them in school, but what can I do after dismissal?”
The danger surrounding the school has been a substantial part of the reason that school officials and neighborhood residents have been beseeching the Recovery School District to move the steadily-improving program from Johnson’s campus to the site of the old Priestly school, a more prestigious location seen as safer nearby. The loss of life in the street will be mourned by the community in its own right, but the need to move the school was also on many minds Wednesday, Brooks said. District officials have promised an engineering study to determine the feasibility of the move, but it is unclear whether the equations will include a variable for proximity to homicide.
“I should not be in a position where I’m telling our children not to go in the yard,” Brooks said, her strong voice faltering as it filled with emotion. “You don’t want to have this close a call. Let me emphasize, at no time was a child in danger. But that’s this time. … You are exposed.”
Neighbors around the intersection — only six blocks in a straight line from the recent Oak Street Po-Boy Festival — declined to share their names for publication out of fear of repercussions. One man who was working on his mother’s house when the gunfire erupted said he dove for cover as the shots rang out.
“It sounded like a war zone,” the man said as he peered over his high wooden fence at the body still lying in the street.