South Sound News

Western Washington Gets Real: Gun violence in Tacoma affecting more than teenagers being killed

TACOMA, Wash. — The gun violence claiming the lives of South Sound teens is affecting the mental health of the peers they are leaving behind.

Since January, half of the homicides in Tacoma have been of young people under the age of 19. And their deaths are impacting other teens. Many of them know the victims know from school, recreation, the neighborhood, or all three.

A Tacoma organization is offering mental health services to Black and Latino teens.

On this sunny spring day in Tacoma, it is hard to imagine that for many teenagers in the City of Destiny, this seems to be their destiny. Or it at least appears to be the destiny of others they know.

Fifteen-year-old Gianna Frazier said she knows the teenager who was killed during spring break.

“Isaiah Mullens,” she said. “Yeah, yeah. He was my classmate. I had second period and sixth period with him.”

On April 5, 16-year-old Isaiah Mullens was killed in Parkland, at least the sixth teenager under 18 years old murdered in or near Tacoma since January.

Yet when Gianna went to Lincoln High the first school day after his death, she says not one adult spoke his name.

“No, me and my friends did, of course,” Gianna said. “And we told our teachers what happened. And in sixth period we got to go talk to a counselor because we were a mess. We couldn’t be in the classroom. Yes. I was just crying a lot. It was really hard.”

It might have been a missed opportunity for the adults in her life if not for the “Gametime” program now housed at Safe Street Tacoma.

“You know when you started something and you feel a passion comes over you,” said Darren De Leon. “Right. And we realize, like, this is part of our purpose.”

These childhood friends started Gametime to coach teen basketball.

“Yeah, 2012,” said David Stewart, “when we first started our first team. First coaching gig.”

But Stewart and De Leon soon learned their young charges needed emotional help, too.

“Mental health has been talked about, but no one, the kids that we talked to really don’t know exactly what it is,” said De Leon. “So, we started ‘Get Your Mind Right.’”

“We just kind of wanted to create a space, a safe space on a Friday night where they could just come and just communicate,” Stewart added.

They hired Simone Bullinger, a licensed mental health counselor.

“And when I broke out into the session with the high school young men, we were talking about anger,” said Bullinger, “kind of how Black men aren’t allowed to love on each other. And how that grief can manifest as rage. And how that creates like violence in our communities and in our homes.”

It is already having an impact.

“It helps us learn how to communicate with others around us,” said Khamaya Caesar, 15 years old, “and express how we feel with each other.”

“I don’t think without, like the Gametime and the Get Your Mind Right programs, like I’d be where I am today,” said 18-year-old Azhalaya Wilson.

And where is she today?

“Well, I’m doing good in school,” she said. “I’m getting a job. I’m going to college to go for basketball. So I feel I made it a lot farther than what I thought that I would have been if I didn’t get help.”

But this is difficult, draining, time-consuming work that no one organization can do alone. So, Safe Streets Tacoma is appealing to this city to help, for its children’s sake.

“This is a free program, well-funded by the people in the community,” said Safe Streets’ Peter Chase.

Chase believes investing here will pay dividends.

“I would love to see more people pitch in and help out,” he said.

All of it to help create a future for Tacoma’s teens that doesn’t look anything like this.