Shock Treatment

March 01, 1995 3 min read

Click. The worst yet: a young woman, nine months’ pregnant, shot in the stomach by her boyfriend’s rivals. They said he needed to learn a lesson.

There’s some nervous shifting in the audience; tears or anger may come later. A few kids squirm past the others in their row and head for the exit. One girl is shaking her head as she leaves. Other students huddle together out in the hallway.

They don’t hear Lt. Winslow McGill of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department say: “Young people, wake up. You’re dying in record numbers out there. You want to be a hustler, you be prepared for this.’'

It’s quiet now. Maybe it’s the longest silence ever at Shaw Junior High.

How do you tell kids to stay off the street?

You don’t, says Lt. McGill. You show them. McGill put his cautionary message into pictures five years ago, about the time he realized harsh words weren’t enough. At that time, he was with the department’s youth division, visiting local schools and talking about the dangers of doing or dealing drugs. It was your basic “Just Say No’’ message. “In one ear, out the other,’' McGill says.

Then he and Darrell Green--the Washington Redskins football player who added celebrity punch to those earlier visits--suddenly woke up; they realized they needed to put the real stuff on show. Give kids a taste of what cops see out there every day: death--stripped bare and deglamorized.

“This is not all new to these students,’' notes Curtis Jones, another officer who’s helping out McGill today. “They’ve talked about death before. But a lot of them haven’t seen what put kids there.’'

About once a month, McGill visits schools like Shaw, located on a city block where the drug trade is big business. His presentation is graphic, but McGill thinks it works. Does his showing 7th, 8th, and 9th graders the body of a young man thrown in a trash compactor upset their parents? McGill, who’s been invited to bring his show to schools as far away as Indiana, hasn’t heard a complaint yet. He’s even spoken at some local churches.

“I hit hard and heavy,’' the 22-year veteran of the D.C. force admits. “But I’ve had kids come up and turn other kids in or tell me their parents need help.’' That’s the payoff, he says. He also thinks the program is cutting down on youth crime in the nation’s capital--where murder is a daily occurrence. The local obituaries are filled with the names of young black men.

“There are very few of us who can say, ‘There isn’t anyone in our family who is into drugs,’ '' McGill tells the Shaw students in his best preacher’s voice. And then he throws out some grim statistics.

The pictures of expensive cars and stacks of cash that made some students titter at the beginning of the show get lost in the slides that follow. Those earlier images don’t stay in the mind as long as the one of the city morgue. “Look at all those young folks, determined to beat the system,’' McGill booms, as the students gaze at row upon row of drawers that hold the bodies. “And this is just one room.’'

This school year, McGill has added a coffin to his show. When the lights go up, officer Jones wheels it to the head of the room, where it waits for closer inspection. It holds what appears to be a real body, hands folded at the waist. “Who wants to live?’' shouts Lt. McGill. “Stand up if you want to live.’'

The students--hundreds of them--rise, looking around with uncertainty for a minute. Then they take up the chant: “I want to live. I want to live.’'

They line up in the middle aisle leading to the coffin. They file past it, but most speed up when they get close.

An 8th grade boy, hanging back, says, “It’s sad. It’s sad our people go out like that.’' Is the show too hard to handle? Maybe, the boy says. “This is a junior high school,’' he explains. “Maybe if it was a college or something. Some of us are still kids.’'

Still, he adds, some will get the message, loud and clear. Everyone in the auditorium knows that yesterday a student was shot to death at nearby Cardozo High School.

Finally, the 8th grader walks over to wait in line. But by the time he gets there, the display is over.

He returns to his seat, where he can only see the gray-blue casket from a distance. Its lid is propped up, and a gauzy veil is draped over the opening. It’s black, like the boy inside.

--Joanna Richardson

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Shock Treatment