When Ernestine Tyus gets out of bed and walks downstairs into her kitchen, it’s a struggle for her to see her grandson’s trophies there. Next to the trophies are his baby pictures, family photos of him with his siblings and pictures of Tyus weeping at his funeral.
Ki’Anthony Tyus, her grandson, died in a car accident days before Christmas. He was 13 years old.
“That was my pride and joy right there,” Tyus said, referring to Ki’Anthony. “They went to his mom’s and I guess they showed her some pictures, and I could hear her on the phone screaming. And I knew then, that was my baby.”
The family has struggled since Ki’Anthony’s death. His two brothers and three sisters are trying to cope with their grief. Tyus often cries when alone, and she left Ki’Anthony’s Christmas presents untouched and hidden in her closet.
“I still kind of [am] hoping that it’s all a dream. That I’m going to wake up and he’s going to come through that door,” she said. “But I know that’s not going to happen.”
The Tyus family has struggled with neighborhood violence before. Ki’Anthony himself was shot four years ago, while watching friends play basketball at Ballard Park. And his experience is not rare.
Across Kentucky, youth experience trauma at a higher rate than the national average. This trauma can range from parents divorcing to exposure to violence — and when kids don’t get help, there can be disastrous consequences for them and the people around them.
‘We’ve been bombarded’
Christopher 2X has seen his share of violence across Louisville. He’s a community activist who spent about 17 years representing dozens of families affected by violence. He’s also the executive director of a new nonprofit which combats violence through education.
2X says a lot of factors, including illegal guns and drugs, are to blame for violence in neighborhoods.
“You don’t need top academic researchers to look at this issue to see what you can see with your own eyes,” 2X said. “We’ve been bombarded — parents and kids who live in these kind of communities — been bombarded with such powerful negativity that some of them don’t know how to swim their way out of this deal. And it’s deep.”
That negativity — and the violence that contributes to it in some Louisville neighborhoods — can cause trauma.
To understand how widespread that trauma is, we looked at the federal Adverse Child Experiences Survey, or “ACES.” According to that survey, Kentucky is above most other states in the percentage of kids who have experienced domestic violence, death and incarceration, and other indicators of trauma. Trauma can also be caused by experiencing — or even simply hearing about — neighborhood violence.
‘When is it going to happen to me?’
Dr. Hilit Kletter, a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University, studies trauma and how it affects young people. Kletter said environmental conditions, such as gunfire in the neighborhood or hearing of violent incidents, can sometimes be worse than direct trauma, because of the ambiguity of the situation.
“You’re living in an environment where you know: this is happening around me, and when is it going to happen to me?” Kletter said. “And we know that […] in environments where it’s one stressor after another after another, there’s really no chance for recovery.”
Kletter said people should educate themselves about the signs of trauma, and recommends people get professional help to cope.
According to Kletter and the ACES survey, the effects of trauma can be long-lasting, and are associated with emotional health issues and behavioral problems in the classroom. Kletter said if a teacher yells for students to be quiet, that may remind youth of traumatic incidents at home, and accelerate their anxiety. That trigger can make kids act out; others may see it as a student being purposefully disruptive.
A WFPL analysis of LMPD crime data and JCPS student data shows that ZIP codes with higher crime are also home to students who attend schools with the highest chronic absenteeism and suspension rates.
According to JCPS, chronic absenteeism applies to students who miss at least 10 percent of school days in a given school year, whether the absence is excused or not. Iroquois High and Valley High have two of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism among their students. As shown in the maps below, the majority of their students live in ZIP codes 40214 and 40272, respectively.
When this information is compared to a map of serious, or “part 1,” crimes in Louisville, both 40214 and 40272 stand out. In fact, they are both in the top five ZIP codes for part 1 crimes.
Part 1 crimes include assault, homicide, burglary and sex crimes.
A similar trend is visible when looking at student residency among schools with the highest suspension rates. Shawnee Academy and Iroquois High issued 183 and 74 suspensions per 100 students, respectively. The majority of their students are from ZIP codes 40212, 40214, 40215 and 40216. Each of those ZIP codes is in the top 10 for serious crimes.
Between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., parents rely on schools to keep their children safe. The geographic overlap between areas of high crime and chronic absenteeism and suspension means that when kids aren’t in school, parents don’t necessarily have that sense of security.
In part, that’s what happened to Ki’Anthony. Ernestine Tyus said Ki’Anthony had skipped some classes last year and was starting to get into trouble.
But before that, 10 months before he died, he talked to me about basketball.
It felt like spring outside Ernestine’s Tyus’ house last year, and Ki’Anthony’s legs dangled from a chair which left his feet inches from the floor. I met him to hear the story of his shooting, and to talk to Ernestine about how gun injuries can bring high hospital bills. Outside, his friends gathered to ask if he could come out and play. His brothers would bounce a half-deflated basketball later, asking him to join them.
Ki’Anthony’s hair was short and his face looked soft. He was quiet, but recited how he cradled himself, cried and envisioned death when he was shot in 2015.
After the incident, Ki’Anthony joined a local activist group called Hood 2 Hood, and promoted non-violence through panel discussions and hospital visits. He visited Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton to talk about solutions to the gun violence that affected him and the people around him. By the time we met, he was less active with Hood 2 Hood. Later, he would begin to act out in school.
Ki’Anthony’s grandmother tried to get ahead of the trouble, arranging for a therapist to come see him. They scheduled the session to happen on Christmas week — the week after Ki’Anthony died.
“My baby was no trouble,” Ernestine Tyus said. “I have to save somebody else’s child from this, and some other mother from this kind of hurt.”
She plans to do that by offering local youth car rides, giving them advice and helping steer them in the right direction. That mentorship, Tyus said, is crucial to helping youth who have been affected by violence, and don’t have positive role models. A mentor could have made all the difference for Ki’Anthony, and Tyus plans to get one for his brother, Ki’Mari, who has lost motivation to play basketball since Ki’Anthony’s death.
Tyus urges other people to volunteer and mentor youth, too.
“These kids, these young men out here, they really need y’all,” she said. “They really need somebody to look up to and somebody to guide them, because there’s a lot of single parents out here that don’t know what to do.”
As we talk, Ki’Mari walks into the house wearing a white sweat jacket and backpack. “R.I.P.” is emblazoned across the jacket’s front, next to his late brother’s name and photograph.
Pictures and videos are a big part of how the family remembers Ki’Anthony now. They show him singing, doing the “floss” dance from the video game Fortnite, and smiling alongside his siblings.
Tyus says her mission is to honor Ki’Anthony through her work, and to see him smile again when she’s gone.
“I’m going to live my life to the fullest,” she said. “So one day, when I get to heaven, I’ll be able to give him a hug and see his face again. That’s all I’ve got to live for now.”
The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville. For more work from the project, click here.