Tag Archives: Ivanna Eudora Kean High School

Vicious Cycle of Gun Violence Consumes the Virgin Islands; Psychologists say use Emotions to Activate Change

It was one gunshot. Lenora Rochester was in her Contant Knolls apartment on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands when she heard the sound on that Thursday evening of Dec. 10, 2015. She was not very alarmed, as gunshots are heard in the neighborhood from time to time. But a few moments later came knocks to her front door – and her life changed forever. The news was devastating. Her son Kadeem John Sr. was shot. Rochester woke her daughter and they hurried to find John.

“When I walked out (the apartment) I didn’t have any emotions or feelings,” Rochester says. Her only thought was “I can’t believe he got shot.”

When Rochester arrived at the scene and saw someone holding pressure to her son’s bleeding chest it became real. “He looked lifeless,” she remembers. “I started to cry.” Between her uncontrollable tears while making calls to notify family members, a police officer put her in his patrol car. “I kept asking ‘is he ok, is he ok,’” she recalls. The only response was “stay in the car,” she says. She stayed put then the ambulance arrived. But instead of driving behind of the ambulance to the hospital as Rochester imagined, she heard something over the police scanner. “They (the EMTs) radioed for the medical examiner,” Rochester says. “I realized that he was gone.” She jumped out of the car to see her son. “I was trying to go to the body, they (police officers) were pulling me back. They said it was a crime scene.”

In that moment Rochester says she felt a rush of emotions – the most dominant being anger. “I was angry,” she recalls. “I was totally angry.”

Rochester describes her third son as a “fun child” who was always smiling – so much so that his friends gave him the nickname “Smiley.” He never got into trouble and had no apparent enemies, Rochester says, so she couldn’t imagine why anyone would kill him. A mariner with the Merchant Marines, John lived mostly on a ship at sea. He had come back to St. Thomas for holiday break. The family spent Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico. John returned to St. Thomas on a Tuesday. He spent the next Thursday at his aunt’s home and was returning to his mom’s home the evening when he was killed.

With support from family and friends, Rochester made it through to Dec. 23, when she laid John to rest – just a day before he would have made 24 years old. “It was just sad,” Rochester says of burring her son. “It was terrible. I was just crying a lot.” On Dec. 24, members of John’s 2009 graduating class of Ivanna Eudora Kean High School held a candlelight vigil at the spot where he was killed. It was then that Rochester began her fight for justice for John.

As homicides continue to rock the territory, Virgin Islands Police Department Commissioner Delroy Richards held a press briefing to address the issue following the July 30, killing of Bria Evans. At the Aug. 1, briefing Richards confirmed 36 homicides in the American territory. The number continues to grow: two police officers were discovered shot to death on Aug. 11 and a firefighter was shot to death on Aug. 19.  The national murder rate is 4.5 killings per 100,000 people per year.  At 39 homicides so far, the U.S. Virgin Islands – home to about 103,000 residents, is one of the most murderous places in the United States.

The homicide problem in the territory is multilayered. Many people point to the infiltration of guns into the territory along with the retaliatory nature of gun crimes.

Psychologist Anissa Moody says the problem in the Virgin Islands rests on two major issues: poverty and a distorted view of masculinity. KadeemYoung men are not given a healthy understanding of masculinity, says Dr. Moody, a professor of psychology at the City University of New York.

Often Caribbean and West Indian masculinity don’t allow men to experience and express a range of emotions, she explains. The males are “angry and aggressive or not,” she says, and emotions are not largely communicated. The community has no rituals around the development of young men, where they are taught a sense of self and expectations are set, she continues. Toughness – and in extreme cases violence –  is seen as the foundation of manhood. Many young men are ill equipped to handle conflict and manage their emotions. That, coupled with easy access to firearms, results in a vicious cycle of violence that cripples the entire community.

At the briefing Commissioner Richards confirmed the “retaliatory trend that exists in the territory” asserting that, “someone that the victim is close to will retaliate.”

In the minds of many young men “death doesn’t seem that bad. Your masculinity means that you fight to the end,” says Dr. Moody, who is also columnist for Ebony magazine and BlackDoctor.com. “Adults glorify these deaths by how we respond,” she says, noting that along with the rest in peace hashtags on social media victims are often remembered as “soldiers.”

“The violence is not experienced as loss,” Dr. Moody explains. “There is no ritual around it. The ritual becomes revenge,” she says. “Each death triggers another death and reaffirms this feeling of helplessness. Because of how often it happens, the more likely it is to happen,” she explains. “The worst part is that this is part of the community behavior. It’s part of the ritual of development for many boys in our community. It’s what we do. It’s part of our life rituals. It’s a cycle.”

The more killings happen, the more the community becomes numb and less likely to take action, Dr. Moody says. “People think that repeated experiences (of violence) will sensitize you. It doesn’t. It does the opposite. It desensitizes you,” asserts Dr. Moody who was born on St. Thomas and raised on St. Croix.

The parents, children, spouses, siblings, and friends who are left to bury the victims of gun violence often deal with their pain by hiding their emotions. Trauma after trauma has created a collective “emotional grave yard” in the Virgin Islands, Dr. Moody says. Not to mention the cumulative loss of potential that dies each time someone is killed.

Psychologist Carla Hunter says that the grief response is individual – the stages and length of time are different for each person. The stages of grief are denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Studies show that the grief response to violent death has an added component. The study “Trauma and bereavement: examining the impact of sudden and violent deaths” by Stacy Kaltman and George A. Bonanno, reveals a correlation between violent death and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the study “violent death results in the development of PTSD symptoms over and above the normal grief response and thus may contribute to a more severe grief response.”

According to the National Center for PTSD, symptoms of the disorder include reliving the event, avoiding situations that remind you of the event, negative changes in beliefs and feelings, and feeling keyed up (hyperarousal).

As Virgin Islanders deal with trauma at home, they are also confronted with trauma on the mainland. Recent killings of African-Americans by police officers, many of the scenes caught on camera and shared on social media, is dealing a double whammy on the psyche of many.

Watching these acts repeatedly on the television and social media “can take over you,” and induce anger says Dr. Kia Fisher, a clinical therapist at Potter’s House Treatment Center in Atlanta. “We have to take a break from it (watching traumatic videos),” Dr. Fisher adds. She points out that she is not suggesting that the community ignores the problem. Dr. Fisher suggests people who feel anger should redirect their emotions to empowerment by taking positive action. “Take baby steps toward change,” she says.

Dr. Moody says too many people in the territory are stuck at the individual level when it comes to problem solving. “This is a community sickness, this type of development in our young men,” she says, suggesting that the community unites to bring about healing. “You know what we can do about it,” she asks. “Take action,” she says. Do not accept things as how they are, she says. The shift in masculinity should start at home and extend into the schools. Children, especially boys, should be reaffirmed with a sense of identity and purpose.

“We tend to reaffirm overt talents,” in sports, academics and music, Dr. Moody notes, but all children should be reaffirmed for their potential. While constantly being reaffirmed, children must be provided with positive opportunities for development and growth. Leaders must emerge for the community organizing necessary to connect resources.

Regarding poverty –  the other main contributor to violence – elected officials must work to bring about economic prosperity in the territory. The correlation between poverty and crime is proven. The higher the poverty level, the more crime. Additionally, youth programs need to be funded, expanded and duplicated throughout the territory Dr. Moody says. Resources must be provided to parents, especially single parents. Parents should also be vocal about what the community needs, she adds.

Drs. Moody, Hunter and Fisher all suggest that people feeling overwhelmed by traumatic events should seek professional help.

“People don’t have to be in crisis to seek help,” says Dr. Hunter, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you realize that you’re behaving in a way or thinking in a way that’s not typical for you, you should seek help.”

Dr. Moody takes it a step further, encouraging everyone to practice “good mental hygiene.” Just like most people have a primary physician, “everyone should have a mental health provider,” Dr. Moody says.

Rochester says her coping mechanisms have been prayer, support from family and friends, and “taking it one day at a time.” While she’s returning to a new normal, the loss of her son is still hard to process. “I’m still in disbelief,” she says.

From the day of John’s candlelight vigil, Rochester launched a personal campaign to bring “Justice for Kadeem.” On the 10th and 23rd of each month –  the day John was killed and buried, respectively – Rochester takes to social media. Some of her posts are in remembrance, but most have been asking witnesses of the crime to step forward.

In recent movement of the case, the Governor of the Virgin Islands signed documents to have the suspect in John’s killing extradited from New York to stand trial. Part of the shock for Rochester was learning that the suspect knew her son. “It hurts. Everything was hurtful,” she says.

Because extradition is just the first step, Rochester continues to “hold the faith” that justice will eventually be served.  In the meanwhile, she tries her best to “keep it together” for her other children and John’s son – Kadeem John Jr.

Rochester says she is no longer angry, but the pain of losing a child to senseless gun violence hasn’t gone away. “I’m still sad,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”

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Dear Teachers: I Appreciate You

On April 21, while speaking to a cousin on my morning commute I mentioned frustration with one of my daughter’s teachers. The teacher just appears aloof and disinterested. She isn’t a bad teacher, per se. My daughter is learning well. But there is an emotional element simply missing from everything that she does. And I noticed it from the moment we met. But being new to the school and city, I betrayed my instincts that told me to to switch teachers and had my daughter remain in the class.

Our conversation took a turn when we both began praising a man, who had spent a year as our teacher but impacted our entire lives – Isborne Fredericks.

Isborne Fredericks is no ordinary teacher. He is a leader with the ability to touch students’ souls, see in them value that they never knew existed and get them to recognize that value – all while imparting stellar education. He has taught hundreds of students and I consider myself fortunate to have been one of his students when I was in sixth grade at the Joseph Gomez Elementary School on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

He was my homeroom and history teacher, and a true visionary. Long before Virgin Islands history was a requirement of the VI Department of Education, Mr. Fredericks created his own VI History curriculum. Our 11 and 12-year-old selves had to learn the executive leadership of the three branches of the VI Government. I still remember searching and calling people to complete my list of commissioners. Yes, we had to find the names ourselves, then still memorize them all. We often protested that we had too much work, but Mr. Fredericks always made us feel that we had the capacity to learn and produce even beyond his expectations.

He also imparted morals and values. Students were to treat each other with same respect as we treated him. He showed no favorites – the respect, grace and mercy that was extended to the best of us, were also extended to the worst of us.

Mr. Fredericks began preparing us sixth graders to be competitive in a global world. Azerbaijan, for example, is an Asian country that we learned about when many had not even ventured outside of the U.S. We also had to know how to spell it. Points were deducted for misspelled words, T’s left uncrossed, or I’s left un-dotted. Taking pride in our work, all the time, is something else that he stressed. He expected, rather demanded, our best always.

And then there was African history. We had to learn the countries on the continent and be able to identify a certain number of them on the map. We even began learning an African language!

In the true essence of developing the whole child, Mr. Fredericks taught the African Bamboula dance as an extra-curricular activity. I can hear him all now beating his drum and singing, “Whe Joycie gone, Joycie gone down the river. Whe Joycie gone, Joycie gone down the river….”

My all-time favorite teacher, I always thought that Mr. Fredericks was special to me. Until I reached high school and realized that many of us in my graduating class claimed him as their favorite also. What was shocking was a time, as an adult, when I was out with a cousin who is about 10 years my senior and we saw Mr. Fredericks. My cousin remarked that Mr. Fredericks was HIS favorite teacher. Unbelievable, I thought to myself, this man has been impacting generations of students!

As we wrapped up our conversation my cousin asked the whereabouts of Mr. Fredericks. I told her where he was and to look him up on Facebook. I encouraged her to share with him directly his impact on her life. Life is too short not to, I explained.

A few hours later I found out that Prince died. And so during this 2016 Teacher Appreciation week, I hope to honor Mr. Fredericks and all the teachers who have made a difference. Gomez Elementary School really set an unshakable foundation in my education and my life. Ms. Wilkes, Ms. Dominique, Ms. DeWindt, Mr. John, Ms. Christian, Ms. Freeman, Ms. Donastorg – if they shaped at least one life, they shaped mine.

But everyone at Gomez contributed.  How could I say that Cheryl Potter, Joan Dawson, Sylvia Woods (God bless her soul) were not my teachers? They never graded my papers or signed my report cards, but they taught me just as well. And l can’t forget the special subject teachers like Mr. Robinson, Mr. Dallas, Mr. Shaw, Ms. Rhymer, Ms. Carson…. Or substitute teachers like Ms. Brooks (sleep in peace) and the two Ms. Benjamins. The support staff also kept us on the right track. I can hear Ms. Sadie saying, “manners will take you round the world and back!”

Throughout my years in the public education system I’ve had extraordinary teachers. Ms. Morton’s seventh grade English class at Bertha C. Boschulte Junior High made me love writing. Mr. Monti’s math class in high school taught me patience. Then it was Jack Beauvais whose class helped me to find what I now recognize as my purpose. I wasn’t even supposed to be in that journalism class he taught at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School. I was in 10th grade and the class, I was told, was for 11th graders. But because I was in advanced English courses, I was admitted with ease. After producing a news broadcast for a project in Mr. Beauvais’ class, I knew I wanted to be a journalist.

I always tell people that in the Virgin Islands we have learned to make do without much. But we still achieve. We achieve in spite of – largely because of our dedicated teachers.

To everyone who has taught me, I say thank you. To all of my family and friends who have made teaching their profession, I say thank you. To all of the teachers that have taught my daughters, I say thank you. And to all of the aspiring teachers who have hopes of molding future generations, I say: “go for it. The world needs more Isborne Frederickses. The world needs you.”

 

From Donoe to Doctorate, “Beep” Returns to Home Court

“I just wanted to teach math.”
Bertrum Foster, Jr. says, those words with such indifference that it belies his major accomplishment. Just wanting to teach math led Foster to a Ph.D. in mathematics.
The statistics for black males excelling in the sciences are dismal. They are even more grim on the doctoral level. His intent was never to bolster the statistics for black males, even though he did. Dr. Foster simply wanted to teach mathematics on the collegiate level. In order to accomplish that goal, he needed a Ph.D.
“I like math because it’s a challenge,” says Dr. Foster, also known to many as “Beep.” His passion for math began with 9th grade algebra. But his first passion was for basketball.
Like many young boys, Dr. Foster imagined himself playing professional basketball. But by high school he was 5’9″ and realized that his dreams of playing professional basketball were slim. But his love for the game continued. In 1995 he lead “Jah Youths” the basketball team founded in his Donoe neighborhood on St. Thomas to the Thanksgiving Tournament championship.
During that same time period, in 1994-95, he lead his Ivanna Eudora Kean High School Devil Rays boys basketball team to consecutive inter scholastic basketball championships.
After graduating high school, Dr. Foster took a break. He held several jobs in Oklahoma for four years before returning home and enrolling at the University of the Virgin Islands to take a shot at the men’s basketball team.
For him, getting a college degree was imperative. He remembers his first real job while in high school – stacking shelves at the Plaza Extra grocery store. “I would just watch the clock,” he recalls, mindlessly working until his shift ended. He would also watch the boss and think to himself, “I need his job.”
“The people who had the kinds of jobs I liked all had degrees,” Dr. Foster says. At UVI he remained a boss on the courts and in the books. In 2003 he earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from UVI.
After undergrad Dr. Foster again took a break from academics, this time working in New York.
As time passed he got serious about his career, returning to grad school at Howard University. In 2013 he earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Howard.
Being totally honest, Dr. Foster confesses that his carer choice first came about for the wrong reason: when as a university student he walked into the office of a mathematics professor who was playing solitaire on the computer. “I wanted to play solitaire at work too,” Dr. Foster says with a laugh.
But Dr. Foster learned that being a professor is no game. In addition to lecturing he has to mentor and advise students, grade papers, conduct research, get his research published, make presentations to academic groups, serve on committees and be at the forefront of curriculum development. “It’s definitely more work than meets the eye,” Dr. Foster says.
After serving as a professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and a lecturer at Howard University, Dr. Foster was recruited as an assistant professor of mathematics at UVI. Although it was challenging readjusting to the facts of life in the islands – high electricity bills, high cost of living and high crime: “Corned beef is $12 a can,” he notes as an example – Dr. Foster is happy for his circle of experiences.
His next goal is to become a tenured professor. And he still plays basketball – four days a week. Soon he will start coaching and training young men in the game. At 30-something years old, Dr. Foster is at the top of his game – a mentor in the classroom and on the courts. Sounds like a slam dunk!

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There’s Hope: the Digna Wheatley Impact

There’s hope.

Tired of their needs being ignored, in 1988 the students at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School (IEKHS) led a march to Government House and the VI Legislature demanding better conditions at the school. The students were fed up with one particular condition– there was no gymnasium. Back then students ate meals and took physical education classes in the same room. This one large room functioned as a cafeteria, gymnasium and auditorium – the cafegymtorium as it was called. Seventeen-year-old Digna Wheatley, the newly elected Student Council president, was approached by two students asking the council to organize a student protest. “Ms. Digna Wheatley saw we had a problem and did something about it,” said former IEKHS faculty member Dagmar Greenaway. Digna lead the student body in what was called “the most well-organized and respectful marches for educational equality” in the Virgin Islands. Less than a year later $600,000 was appropriated to build the schools’ first gymnasium. On Feb. 18, 2012, in an emotional and motivational ceremony, the gymnasium at the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School (IEKHS) was named in honor of Digna Marie Wheatley.

“I can still see her standing up in front of us with her feet planted firmly in the ground and her hand in the air saying ‘we are going to march,’” recalled her classmate Lisa Williams. “She declared we were going to march. The response she always got was ‘yes,’” Lisa said. “We always wanted to join her. It was necessary. We felt like we were being ignored by the leadership of this community.”

There’s hope.

When Digna was approached by the two students to lead a march Digna thought, “why me, why now,” she said.  Digna had decided to run for Student Council president just two days before the election, at the urging of a teacher. Now she was being asked to do something that had not been done before. Before agreeing to that significant request, Digna prayed and God responded with a ‘yes.’ Digna made it clear to the students that they had to represent the school and themselves with the utmost dignity. In the following weeks Digna organized the march, secured the necessary permits and rallied the student body, all unbeknown to the school’s administration and faculty. When the leaders at the school found out, they decided to join the effort. “She had not only the vision to see what needed to be done,” said former Kean High faculty member James Kerr, “but to motivate others to do the same.” He noted how ironic it is that elected officials say that they work in the interest of the children, but it this case it was a child who had to take lead to advocate for a gymnasium for her schoolmates and other students to come. “It’s ironic. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful,” Kerr said.

There’s hope.

Digna led more than 1,200 IEKHS students to the Legislature and Government House in a march that has been sealed in Virgin Islands history. They were joined by IEKHS administration and faculty, and members of the community. While elected officials tried to placate the teenager, she held fast to her goal. Passionately and respectfully Digna told the Virgin Islands of the conditions at Kean High and demanded better. And for the first time they listened. “We demanded respect as students from an educational system that was unjust,” Digna said. “It was that vision that burned in us, a fire that couldn’t be extinguished,” she said. “I’m very grateful that God decided to use me many years ago.”

There’s hope.

The IEKHS’ gymnasium was built in the early 1990s. In 2004 the VI Legislature passed a bill to name the gym in Digna’s honor. As a Virgin Islander I am so proud of what Digna Wheatley represents for all of us. As an alumna of Kean High I am even more proud.

“It is so fitting that we are doing this in the morning,” IEKHS principal Dr. Sharon McCollum said at the renaming ceremony. “Morning signals a new beginning. Digna represented a new beginning. Today we celebrate you and how far we have come,” she said. “Digna you have been a blessing to Ivanna Eudora Kean High School. It is with a great sense of pride and honor that we will name this building after you.”

 There is hope.

Today Digna, a nurse and public health administrator, works at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. The students at IEKHS have a gym.  After many years of requests, construction of the school’s first track has begun. “Everything we’ve ever wanted, every accomplishment we’ve ever made, we’ve had to fight for,” said Tulip Fleming, former IEKHS faculty member and one of Digna’s teachers.

As long as there are other Digna Wheatleys in community who have the courage and vision to organize, strategize and lead – there’s hope!