While Chattanooga police and local officials have called for a stop to the violence after the recent mass shootings in the city, local leaders held a roundtable discussion with students at Brainerd High School on Tuesday to hear what they had to say about the recent events.
"We care about you," LaDarius Price, co-founder of the Lighthouse Collective, a community engagement program in Chattanooga that focuses on mentoring young Black boys and men, told the students. "We're going to continue investing in you."
Dennis Lewis Jr., 17, said the recent mass shootings left him fearful for his and his friends' safety.
"It makes me want to stay at home during the weekends instead of going out and doing fun things," Lewis said.
Price, Pastor Christian Sands and Troy Rogers, the public safety coordinator for the city of Chattanooga, organized the event, the first of several planned through the collective to listen to what young people have to say about how they felt after the recent shootings.
Sands asked the group of about 30 young men how the May 28 mass shooting in downtown Chattanooga, which left six teenagers injured, has affected them.
"It is important, it is imperative to hear from young people," Sands said. "Your voice matters. How are you, personally, feeling?"
While some boys said they were left confused, others said they felt violated, unsafe, uncertain, numb and helpless.
Most of the young men, both Black and white, raised their hands when asked if they had been personally affected by gun violence, or if they knew someone who had been personally affected by gun violence. Some also said they were left feeling confused, scared and helpless.
Students expressed fears of just going outside, given the frequency of shootings. This past weekend, three people died, with 17 victims total, in a shooting on McCallie Avenue and a subsequent vehicle crash while people were fleeing the scene.
Some students said their disappointment stems from authority figures who they believe chose not to act, although they had the power to make changes. Others said they would like the violence to stop.
One student pointed out that it is harder to get a driver's license than it is to get a gun, going on to say that stricter measures should be enforced to purchase a firearm.
When asked if they had seen videos of the May 28 shooting in the 100 block of Walnut Street - an incident that left six teenagers injured - around half the group raised their hands, with a few others saying they had discussed the event. Most agreed that social media played a huge part in how word gets around when it comes to solving disputes with fights.
"What is your response when you see a friend has a gun?" Sands asked.
"Put that down," one student said, with others chiming in, saying they'd ask what their mother would think if she found out they had a firearm. Another student said that perhaps not putting guns in the hands of children is the answer to curbing violence among young people.
Sands, Price and Rogers urged students to talk to their teachers and parents, assuring them there is no shame in asking for help and that they are not alone in their struggles and fears.
Lewis, who attends Brainerd High School and plays football, said he often doesn't have the confidence to speak to his parents or teachers.
"It makes me feel like I'm not saying the right thing," Lewis said to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, adding he just wants adults to listen without any judgment to him and other young people about what they have to say.
"Just listen, that's all," Lewis said.
Hamilton County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, D-Ridgeside, stood up and commended those who showed up to the meeting.
"They come every day to do programs with you guys," Geter said. "Know that there's an army behind them. There's judges, there's elected officials, there's folks out here in this community that really truly value your life."
Throughout the course of the event, some of the young men said lack of family structure and discipline could lead to young people acting out and resorting to violence, asking for parents to be more active in their children's lives. Most of them said they come from single-parent households.
Deonte Grimes, program director for the Friends House Ministries, said that while many have blamed parents, not every person knows how to be one.
"With my older kids, I was raising them wrong," Grimes said, adding that realizing he needed to change his methods and being open to do so was an important step.
Grimes suggested parenting classes for those interested in learning a new approach of talking to their children and connecting with them in a meaningful way.
"To fail is to create champions ... realizing that they are failures in certain areas and fixing that certain area, you can actually reach your full potential," Grimes said to the Times Free Press. "I took responsibility. This is who I am. It's no excuse, now let's fix it."
In response to parenting classes and helping those parents struggling to engage their children, one of the students commented that while he agrees with everything being said at the event, some people just don't want to be helped.
When asked if they knew what the cause of the violent incidents was, some students said "colors," referring to the colors different gangs wear. Others said it was street credibility, power, money and lack of hope.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Robert Philyaw urged the young people present to speak up and not believe the myths of not suffering serious legal consequences because they commit crimes while under age.
"In nine years (of being a judge), I've had to send six young boys to the adult system," Philyaw said. "Those six are serving life sentences. Don't let a temporary issue become a permanent problem."
On Monday, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston filed a motion to move the case of the 15 year-old boy who was arrested in connection to the Walnut Street shooting to the Hamilton County Criminal Court. Philyaw will decide if the case will be transferred. If so, the teen will be tried as an adult for attempted murder.
Under Tennessee law, those tried and convicted of attempted first-degree murder face at least 10 years in prison.
"You guys could change the world," Philyaw. "You guys can certainly change this community."
Contact La Shawn Pagán at email@example.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.