Aurora Sentinel: Dozens gather to discuss gun violence at Aurora community forum Monday

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Maisha Fields interacts with one of youth members of the From the Heart program, during a forum hosted by Sen. Rhonda Fields, Nov. 22, 2021 at the Dayton Opportunity Center to discuss the increase in gun violence in the city. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Some people have memberships to Costco. Or Walgreens. Maisha Fields has a membership to a club that nobody wants to be in — the club of gun violence survivors.

Fields’ brother Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiance Vivian Wolfe, were murdered by a gunman in 2005.

On Monday, Fields and her mother, state Sen. Rhonda Fields, were a forum on gun violence at the Dayton Street Opportunity Center, a youth center created in the slain couple’s honor not far from where they were shot on Dayton Street.

It was standing room only at the center for two hours as a who’s who of Aurora politicians, community leaders and activists discussed and debated how to respond to the newest spate of gun violence.

“We have to do better, because my soul is heavy,” Maisha Fields said.

No stranger to the subject, last week Aurora saw two shootings that rocked the city. On Monday six teenagers were shot at Nome Park just across the street from Aurora Central High School, and on Friday three students were shot in the parking lot of Hinkley High School. All of the victims survived. Three 16-year-old boys have been arrested in connection with the Hinkley shooting. There was little consensus at the at-times chaotic forum, but speakers shared a sense of frustration over the fact that youth gun violence has dogged the city for so long, and an understanding that more than just a police response is needed to combat the problem.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn, who attended the meeting along with the majority of the district’s school board members, said that the discussion reminded him of conversations he was having in 1993 during what was dubbed the “summer of violence.”

Youth violence is often symptomatic, Munn said. He cited three factors: young people not seeing opportunity for themselves, an “epidemic” of easy access to guns and youth not being taught to resolve conflict in constructive ways.

The district will be having meetings throughout the week to discuss how to make sure students feel as safe as possible when they return to school after Thanksgiving break, Munn said. He asked the community to come together to help young people feel supported.

“We can’t police our way out of this problem,” said Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson. “The pipeline to prison is real, and I don’t want to be a part of it. We need to find community solutions so we can save our youth.”

To keep more juveniles from becoming gun violence perpetrators or victims, Wilson said parents need to be checking their children’s backpacks and social media, and need to know who their children are spending time with.

She also said it’s important that young people have trusted adults they can turn to so that if they aren’t comfortable reporting something to the police, they have another person they can bring problems to without fear of retaliation.

Wilson said the department has made “substantial” steps in investigating the Nome Park shooting, and hopes to have suspects in custody within 24 hours.

“But I can tell you that these are our youth,” she said. “I don’t want to put handcuffs on juveniles, and I need everyone’s help in that.”

State Sen. Janet Bucker said the Legislature needs to devote more money to safe spaces for kids and mental health resources, something she said she plans to push for in the next legislative session.

“We have families who are in crisis,” she said.

Elijah Rene, a community organizer with From the Heart Enterprises, said that he was involved in gang life in high school and left after seeing friends die or go to jail. He said that mental health services and mentorship programs are pivotal for helping today’s youth.

Some people at the meeting suggested taking away resources from the police department, which Wilson expressed frustration with near the end of the meeting.

“I have 39 homicides,” she said. “The crime in Aurora is out of control. You need police. I will make sure they police the right way, and I will hold them accountable if they don’t, but we need to change this narrative.”

Citywide, aggravated assaults — which is how non-fatal shootings are often defined in statistics — were up about 20% in the first 10 months of the year when compared to the same time in 2020, police data show. There were 2,243 aggravated assault victims reported in the city through Oct. 24, the most recent complete data available. Murders are roughly flat in the city when comparing 2019 to 2020, according to recent police statistics and reporting, with an estimated 34 such crimes reported in the city so far this year.

Munn told the Sentinel that the district will have increased security and mental health resources at schools, and is meeting with APD to put together a comprehensive plan for after the break. It is also working to make sure that parents know the different channels to access resources and report safety concerns.

The district is still waiting for more information about the shootings, and once it knows more will use that to determine its response, Munn said. It is currently unclear whether the shooting is gang-related or if the two shootings are linked, for instance.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.

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