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People in Aurora search for answers into shootings involving teenagers

NOEL KING, HOST:

In the span of less than a month, in Aurora, Colo., 16 young people were shot. These were multiple incidents, and they don't appear to be related. But Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry reports that community leaders are highlighting a potential reason - isolation.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: The first incident was before Thanksgiving, when a couple of teenagers were playing with an assault rifle, and it fired, and one died. Then, a few days later, six teens were shot in a park across the street from a high school. A few days after that, another shooting at another high school parking lot. Then five people were shot at a party the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson.

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VANESSA WILSON: And I think enough is enough, and I think we need to come together as a community. This is a public health crisis. This is not all on law enforcement. We need to get out - through to our kids and figure out a way to stop this.

SHERRY: In the aftermath of the violence in Colorado's third-largest city, community leaders pointed to familiar root causes made worse by the pandemic - struggles around mental health, past abuse and trauma. Aurora Public School Superintendent Rico Munn says since the return of in-person classes, he's noticed students lack coping mechanisms.

RICO MUNN: Where their ability to self-regulate their feelings and behaviors has been disrupted by the pandemic. Perhaps it was some time spent isolated or not in those practices.

SHERRY: The community is clearly in shock.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Put your hands in the air if you want to take your community back and you're willing to fight and fight till the end, speak till the end, and ensure every single person you elect is going to fight with you. Thank you.

SHERRY: Some religious leaders called this rally after the first shooting near a high school.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No mother, no sibling, no friend, no neighbor should ever have to experience the pain of going to a hospital and identifying your child.

SHERRY: Moments before it started, the second high school parking lot shooting happened, and police asked everyone to stay in place. It became an outdoor therapy session of sorts.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And it's never going to touch anybody until y'all start building relationships with these kids. A lot of people are afraid to go approach these youths. For what? They human just like you.

HALIM ALI: Right leg out to a horse, and we're going to do outward blocks. Ready? Go. One, two...

SHERRY: In a backyard near where the rally was held, Halim Ali is practicing martial arts with an 11-year-old who's been bullied.

ALI: Ready position.

SHERRY: Ali runs From the Heart Foundation, mentoring kids as young as eight. The 11-year-old, who we're not identifying to protect his privacy, says even in middle school, kids feel angrier.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I don't know if some people, like, lost, like, a little bit of, like, control over themselves a little bit?

SHERRY: Ali says about 85% of the kids he works with struggle with anger management, more than before the pandemic. He senses the kids' isolation.

ALI: Our young men are not allowed to express their emotions, not allowed to cry, right? So when they're hurting, it just comes out as anger, as opposed to saying, I'm hurting. I need a hug. I need some love. I need someone to talk to. That anger is now transformed into hate.

SHERRY: College sophomore Ellis Hudson was mentored when he was younger and felt more alone. He, too, works with From the Heart. On a recent sunny Saturday, standing on a rec center rooftop, he talked to kids about stressors and coping skills.

ELLIS HUDSON: So stress is basically something that happens in everyday life, something that can stress you out, plain and simple - school, parents, waking up early, people, life. And somebody said, everything.

SHERRY: And Hudson talked to the kids about what to do.

HUDSON: Basically, this entire workshop and everything that I'm teaching today is basically self-awareness. Yeah, your stuff is real, but you can definitely have an action plan and an early-warning-signs plan for when things are breaking down in your life that you have tools that you can go to.

SHERRY: Halim Ali sees kids using these tools. The 11-year-old he's working with today encountered a bully. He reported it to an adult and walked away.

ALI: So he's practicing these things. And, you know, with this interview, it's really showing me, like, this is my guy; this is my buddy right here (laughter). So I'm proud of you, man. I'm proud of you. Good work.

SHERRY: What's happening with kids right now, coming out of the stress of the pandemic, is complex. Omar Montgomery, who runs the Aurora NAACP branch, says even adults easing back into the world after months of isolation haven't been entirely on good behavior. He cites viral videos of temper tantrums on airplanes and even the insurrection on January 6 at the U.S. Capitol.

OMAR MONTGOMERY: You're seeing adults quick to fight, quick to get angry, going from zero to 100. Many of these adults have kids. So if this is perceived acceptable behavior for adults, then teenagers are going to act the same way.

SHERRY: While most of the young people shot in Aurora recently have survived, Deputy Police Chief Darin Parker says that potentially makes the seriousness of shootings harder to grasp.

DARIN PARKER: It adds to this idea of, well, you know, my friend got shot, and they're fine. You know what I mean? Like, they're back at school in a month - you know, whatever it is. And it almost adds to the problem, then, of - well, how big a deal is it?

SHERRY: Lawrence Goshon gets text messages when shooting victims arrive in hospital emergency rooms. A violence interrupter, he tries to prevent retaliation or further bloodshed. That's meant getting kids together to take out frustrations, work that's largely been shelved during the pandemic.

LAWRENCE GOSHON: Like, before the pandemic, we at least had the opportunity to have some victories. Like, we'd have the violence out there, but we were able to connect with the kids, sit back and laugh and joke and have these events and see the progress these children were making. We don't see that very often anymore.

SHERRY: There isn't a single way to beat back what kids went through during the pandemic - all the seclusion and time away from school, where there are so many caring adults every day. People doing this work say it's clear that the kids, particularly the most vulnerable, need every support a community can provide so they can get back to some small sense of normalcy and safety.

For NPR News, I'm Allison Sherry in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.