https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/02/27/this-cant-be-our-new-normal-an-in-school-execution-leaves-toronto-with-feelings-of-fear-dj-vu-and-anger.html

Sandra Costain can list the names easily; they are never far from her mind. Sealand White, 15, in 2010. Tyson Bailey, 15, in 2013. Mackai Bishop Jackson, 15, in 2018.

Three young boys shot dead in Regent Park, all unsolved murders.

They are who she is thinking of after 18-year-old Jaheim Robinson was shot in the halls of a Scarborough high school earlier this month in what police called an “execution,” allegedly by a 14-year-old boy.

“This can’t be our new normal,” said Costain, the director of children and youth at Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services, a social services organization that supports at-risk youth in the downtown east.

This year has already been a bad one for youth, both as victims and alleged perpetrators of gun violence in Toronto. In January, a 15-year-old boy was allegedly shot dead by a 13-year-old boy in an East York parking garage. Weeks earlier, 19-year-old Malachi Elijah Bainbridge was allegedly gunned down in a parking lot by a 16-year-old boy, accompanied by a 16-year-old boy and 15-year-old girl.

The ages of these teens sadden but don’t surprise Costain.

“All of the disruptions and just the destabilizing time we’ve had in the last two years, it’s going to have an impact on young people,” she said. “I think that young people have experienced this kind of trauma and this gunplay is very normalized for young Black boys.”

For much of the pandemic, many in-person youth services evaporated and with them opportunities to build positive community connections with kids — relationships that can steer a young person in the right direction, and help people like Costain spot red flags along the way.

“We have noticed young people feeling disconnected, young people feeling they have limited access to positive role models in their communities,” said Nadia Gouveia, the director of programs and partnerships at the Toronto Community Housing Corp. “We’ve seen more young people hanging out in stairwells and hallways because there is nowhere to go.”

Costain added: “All this social media stuff, little supervision, no schedule, no interacting, no opportunities to connect … It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Over the past two years there has been a rise in violence and abuse in home, increased financial stress on families, increased mental health needs, an unprecedented rise in food insecurity, education setbacks — all of which contribute to youth struggling, said Denise Andrea Campbell, executive director of social development, finance and administration at the City of Toronto — a division that is responsible for tackling poverty reduction, community safety and youth development.

“Families that were already in vulnerable circumstances have now become even more vulnerable through the pandemic,” she said. “And their prospects of recovery are even more dire.”

A critical part of the problem is the readily available access to guns and drugs. By virtue of her work, Gouveia said she could probably pick up the phone and get a gun herself in a few hours — just like many of the kids she and other youth programs work with.

“Why does a 13-year-old have access to a loaded gun, and know what to do with it? Where are the adults here?” Costain said. “The frontal lobes of their brains aren’t even developed; they are impulsive anyway. And then they have access to guns?”

Police have said Robinson’s fatal shooting is part of a disturbing trend. One-third of the city’s 12 homicides so far this year have involved victims or accused people under the age of 20, Dept. Chief Myron Demkiw said, adding that police research shows that between 2015 and 2020, the average age of those involved in gun violence in Toronto was 25. In 2021, the average fell to 20.

According to records kept by the Star’s library, Toronto police have reported 22 suspects under the age of 18 in shooting homicides since 2018 — the most in any five-year period dating back at least into the 1980s. (Both police and the Star’s records only track reported suspects or arrests, and thus include any young people who are later cleared or convicted of lesser charges.)

Costain said her organization has been seeing an increase in kids around the age of 12 and early teens involved in physical violence and more serious crimes — examples include engaging in fights that are recorded and shared on social media, or swarming or assaulting adults in groups. There is also more stealing of scooters and cars, she said, rather than more typical shoplifting.

She said weapons aren’t typically involved until teens are older, around 16, with younger exceptions often being those with an older sibling or family member involved in criminal activity.

Campbell said the city has also found that younger teens are increasingly participating in violence, something the city is working on ways to prevent — in particular trying to tackle conflicts that escalate on social media.

“The online side to community and gun violence is a big concern and seems to be growing in complexity,” she said.

What is key, Gouveia says, is getting to kids early, before trouble starts.

“It doesn’t start at 12,” she said, noting that both “grooming” by street gangs and children’s experiences of trauma can start much earlier.

She stresses the importance of building relationships with younger children through things like recreational programming.

Structured programs give kids someone to talk to if things are changing, “but more importantly we are able to actually monitor behaviour and notice changes in behaviour and I think you can intervene at an earlier point,” she said.

She notes that kids being victimized, or witnessing violence in their communities, can be a significant factor in leading to criminal activity.

It forces kids who might otherwise look to the future to focus instead on “How do I get through today?” she said, adding that all these factors make it difficult for kids to make the right choices.

She remembers the first time a child she knew was killed, shot dead in a stairwell. The night he died, he had been scheduled to attend a basketball program, but it had been cancelled.

“I remember thinking, like, why are you doing all these programs?” she said. “It’s because it prevents that one opportunity.”

Robinson’s death inside David and Mary Thomson Collegiate Institute — the first fatal shooting inside a Toronto school since the death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners in 2007 — directly exposed many more young people to the trauma of gun violence, some not for the first time, in a place that is supposed to feel safe.

Outreach workers from Rosalie Hall, a child mental health organization working in the Scarborough area where the school is located, have been supporting and listening to students, said Reshawn Hunter, the organization’s director of programs.

The community is “really struggling,” she said.

“A lot of students were witness to this, there’s definitely potential for trauma for the students, and definitely we know for the family involved,” she said.

Both Gouveia and Costain say the links between youth violence and racism, poverty and marginalization are clear and require ambitious solutions.

Yes, directly working with the young person is important, they say. But so is making sure their parents and families are getting the support they need, ensuring their schools are properly resourced and that they have real access to opportunities for their futures.

Campbell says the city’s approach through the SafeTO program and gun violence reduction strategy is to have different areas — the city, schools, police, health care, transit, community agencies and the province — work together.

But it also means tackling bigger issues like the lack of affordable housing, mental health treatment beds and income supports, said Campbell.

“I think Torontonians are pretty clear that they want a city that is vibrant, that is safe, that is prosperous,” she added.

“The No. 1 goal is for all children to know how precious they are and how much value they add, that they can really do anything that they want to,” Costain said. “And we have to make those words real, not just say them because they sound good.”

“We can’t keep closing doors, closing doors, closing doors — because the criminal element is never going to close the f—ing door. They are open 24-7.”

With files from Olivia Bowden

Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati