Hard Lessons From the Scene of the Crime

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Joanna Richardson

It's dark as night in the school auditorium, but students' faces are visible in the half-light of the slide show.

On the screen, a young black man lies face down, bullet holes in the back of his head. Killed by dealers in the District of Columbia's booming drug trade. A few gasps and "oohs" from the audience.

Click. A pool of blood seeps from below another man, wrapped in a flashy athletic jacket. He doesn't need it now. He went out the same way--execution.

Click. The worst of it: 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 now. Maybe the tears or anger 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 Lieut. Winslow McGill of the 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 School.

How do you tell kids to stay off the street?

You don't, says Lieutenant 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 drugs, or dealing them. It was your basic "Just Say No" message. "In one ear, out the other," McGill says.

He and Darrell Green--the Washington Redskins football player who added celebrity punch to those earlier visits--suddenly got it. Put the real stuff on show. Give kids a taste of what cops see out there every day--death, stripped bare and de-glamourized.

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

The presentation is graphic, but McGill thinks it works. About once a month he visits schools like this one, on a city block where crack or heroin could be changing hands right now, he says.

Does the idea of showing 7th-, 8th-, and 9th-graders the body of a young man thrown in a trash compactor upset 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 churches in the city.

"I hit hard and heavy," the 22-year veteran of the 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 hovers like a storm cloud over some neighborhoods.

"There are very few of us who can say there isn't anyone in our family who is into drugs," McGill tells the audience in his best preacher's voice. He throws out some grim statistics. The local obituaries are filled with the names of young black men.

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 images don't last as long as the shot of the city morgue.

"Look at all those young folks, determined to beat the system," McGill booms, as the students gaze at the rows upon rows of drawers that hold the bodies. "And this is just one room."

This year, McGill added a coffin to his show.

When the lights go up, another officer wheels it to the head of the room, where it waits for closer inspection.

The officers stand next to the box. It holds what appears to be a real body, hands folded at the waist.

"Who wants to live?" shouts Lieutenant McGill. "Stand up if you want to live."

The students--hundreds of them--rise, looking around uncertainly 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 so. "This is a junior high school. I mean, maybe if it was a college or something," he says. "Some of us are still kids."

But some will get the message, loud and clear, he adds.

Everyone here knows that yesterday, a student was shot to death at nearby Cardozo High School.

The officers and a few teachers and administrators watch the procession from their posts throughout the room.

Finally, the 8th grader, in a blue workshirt and jeans, walks over to wait in line.

But by the time he gets there, the show is over.

He returns to his seat, where he can only see the gray-blue casket from a distance.

Its cover is propped up, and a gauzy veil is draped over the opening.

It's black, like the boy inside.

Vol. 14, Issue 20

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