Behind a Surge in Teenage Killings: Grief, Anger and Online Grudges

When the New York City police in January announced arrests in the killing of a 17-year-old in Coney Island, not one of the three people charged was old enough to drive: A 13-year-old had stabbed Nyheem Wright, the police said. His friends, ages 14 and 15, were charged with aiding him.

The fight started over a girl after school, prosecutors said. Now, the boys, who turned themselves in, face maximum sentences that range from nine years in prison to life behind bars.

“The kids involved are kids,” said April Leong, the principal of Liberation Diploma Plus High School, where Nyheem was a student. “They’re kids.”

From 2018 through 2022, teenagers were arrested and charged with murder in the city at a rate that grew twice as fast as that of adults. Forty-five children ranging from 13 to 17 were arrested and charged with murder last year, nearly double the number in 2018, according to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Violence breaks out more quickly and more often now than it did before the pandemic, law enforcement and education officials say. Conflicts that were born online, and that festered as threats were exchanged behind screens, have increasingly spilled into the real world. Children’s tempers explode as they pile on to the subway, when words are exchanged on a Brooklyn park bench and outside schools as they let out for the day.

Young people “came out of quarantine with scores to settle,” said Patrice O’Shaughnessy, communications director for the Bronx district attorney, whose office charged 26 adolescents with murder last year.

The proliferation of guns and the fallout of the pandemic’s disruption to schools — including higher numbers of students missing school and falling behind academically — added to a constellation of factors that have unmoored children. Students were absent from schools, and their stabilizing influence, more often in poor communities, where gun violence was already higher and where social services, housing and access to amenities are often lacking.

During the 18 months that New York City schools were closed because of the pandemic, more people in Black and Latino communities died, and Black children were more likely to lose a caregiver. All the teenagers charged with murder in New York City last year were Black or Hispanic, according to state data.

The pandemic and its attendant catastrophes were a “short circuit” for adolescents, at a time in their lives when they are learning how to manage conflicts, said Joseph Allen, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia.

“It’s like if you took all the calcium out of someone’s diet during a growth spurt,” Mr. Allen said. “They might survive, but there would be a real risk of bones breaking. And that’s what we’re seeing.”

Crime in the city touched record lows before the pandemic, but violence began increasing during the onslaught of the coronavirus. A recent study of four major U.S. cities, including New York, found that the rate at which children were victims of gun violence had nearly doubled throughout the pandemic. Black children were the main victims, said Jonathan Jay, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health and the report’s lead author.

“Black children’s rates of gun victimization in these cities was 100 times the rate of white children during the pandemic, which was much more than we have ever seen before or would have expected to see,” Mr. Jay said.

Violence among teenagers in New York happened all across the city. In July, the police said a 15-year-old boy stabbed and killed Ethan Reyes, 14, after a dispute in Harlem. In December, a 17-year-old girl was charged with shooting and killing Prince Shabazz, 14, in the Bronx.

In January, a 16-year-old boy was charged in the stabbing death of Justin Shaw, 20, in Queens. Three others — ages 13 to 17 — were charged with gang assault and criminal possession of a weapon in relation to the crime.

A 16-year-old was charged with shooting Unique Smith, 15, as he sat at a park in Brooklyn with friends after school in September.

In Coney Island, Nyheem would have graduated this year from the small high school Ms. Leong founded, which was designed for students who are older than others at their grade level or who have fallen behind elsewhere.

Ms. Leong said she had fostered close relationships with the 200 or so students who attend the school. She said students and parents had confided in her about the pandemic’s effect on their mental and emotional health, and about how they were experiencing “a different kind of aggression.”

“Instead of expressing anything, they’re just burying it inside, and it’s morphing,” Ms. Leong said. “It’s showing up in other ways — whether it’s anxiety, whether it’s depression, whether it’s these sudden impulses of anger.”

The day before his killing, Nyheem’s mother, Simone Brooks, said, he told her he had gotten into a fight defending a girl who was one of his best friends. The others in the fight were gang members, Ms. Brooks said, who then marked him for retribution.

The attack on Nyheem unfolded along two city blocks on a Friday after school.

Nyheem was standing with his twin brother in front of a strip mall when three boys surrounded him, prosecutors said. The two older boys kicked and punched Nyheem. The youngest stabbed him in the torso, the prosecutors said.

Nyheem ran into Mermaid Optical about a block away and was taken to Maimonides Medical Center, about 20 minutes away. He died the next day.

Ms. Leong said Nyheem wasn’t the first student she had lost to violence in the 16 years since she established the school, and she said the deaths wouldn’t stop until community leaders — including educators, social service workers, law enforcement officials and politicians — cooperated to find tangible solutions.

Nyheem’s mother, Ms. Brooks, said she had noticed that there weren’t places for children to play when they moved to Coney Island three years ago. A community center across the street from her apartment was always closed, she said.

Parks and community centers in the area are often inaccessible, said Derick Latif Scott, director of Operation H.O.O.D., a violence reduction program that operates programs for young people.

“So what do you want these kids to do?” he asked. “Swing on the scaffolding, break their neck?”

In an effort to reduce violence, Mayor Eric Adams has expanded several city programs for young people in the year since he took office.

One of them, Saturday Night Lights, offers activities for children between the ages of 11 and 18, once a week, in more than 130 gyms around the city. The program is a “key” effort to addressing youth violence, said Chauncey Parker, a deputy commissioner in the Police Department who is in charge of community partnerships. Between 5,000 and 6,000 children attend every week.

Another effort, the Summer Youth Employment Program, reached 100,000 people ages 14 to 24 last year, up from 75,000 participants in 2021.

And in February, the Police Department’s precinct commanders began meeting weekly with principals across the city to discuss safety and after-school events, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.

In Nyheem’s case, the police told Ms. Brooks that at least two of the boys who were arrested had prior cases, she said. “Something needs to happen where they know that we can’t be doing this,” she said.

New York’s juvenile justice system faces a number of challenges, and for decades, city leaders and residents have debated how to treat juvenile offenders.

When crimes involving children spiked in the 1990s, officials pushed to extend their prison sentences. After crime plunged in recent years, lawmakers in Albany in 2017 approved a law, Raise the Age, that diverted most adolescent cases directly to Family Court or to judges with access to social services and special training.

Ms. Brooks said that the city isn’t doing enough to stem the violence and that, in some cases, the system is too soft on young people. She said the teenagers accused in her son’s case should be tried as adults. Her neighbors have pleaded with her, saying that “all four of your families will be messed up,” she said.

“I’m sorry to their moms about the fact that he’s a young kid,” she said. “But she still could go see her kid.”

Wesley Parnell contributed reporting.

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