He’s 14. He’s been to five funerals. Can he avoid his own?

In D.C., where teens are increasingly getting shot and killed, Rashad Bates knows he could be next. So do the adults trying to keep him alive.

Rashad Bates, 14, has lost several friends to gun violence. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

ORLANDO — The lazy river curved through the theme park until the water was too deep for 14-year-old Rashad Bates to stand. He clung to the wall, looked into a cave he was about to enter and yanked off his goggles.

“I don’t want to go there,” he said.

Rashad, unable to swim, had practiced staying away from danger. At home in the nation’s capital, he’d grown up surrounded by gun violence. But in this theme park in Orlando, he was surrounded by green pool noodles. Two floated toward him. Rashad tucked them under his arms.

Slowly, he pulled himself closer to the wall, and then all at once, he pushed himself off. Toward the cavern with pillars shaped like icicles. Toward his friend, who knew how to swim. Toward the beams of sunlight that shone through cracks in the rock and splashed the turquoise water.

“I’m doing it,” he whispered.

That was more than Rashad could have imagined for himself a week earlier, when he sat in the back row of a funeral for two of his friends, trying not to think that he could be next.

Rashad enjoys a pool at a theme park in Orlando. The trip was meant to give Rashad a break from his neighborhood in Southeast Washington. (Emily Davies/The Washington Post)

Demarcos Pinckney, 15, and Kevin Mason, 17, were shot to death last summer in front of Rashad’s apartment building off Langston Place, a street in Southeast Washington sandwiched between a church and a parkway. The teens, who used to live floors beneath Rashad, were at least the seventh and eighth people in his life to die suddenly and unexpectedly. First, his dad died when he was in third grade; Rashad and his mother said they do not know the cause and declined to discuss the circumstances. Then, one bullet at a time, he lost friends.

[2023 was D.C.’s deadliest year in more than two decades]

Rashad missed a few funerals because he could not find rides or did not feel like going. Still, in his first 14 years, Rashad had sat through five services.

The trip to Orlando, organized by one of Rashad’s mentors, Jawanna Hardy, was meant to extricate him from his neighborhood and offer a reprieve from the poverty and violence that often felt like it defined his days. Hardy was trying to keep him from joining older teens in his neighborhood in risky, sometimes criminal, behavior and to show him what life could look like if he avoided such temptations. That effort was made even more complicated last year, when a close family member of Rashad’s was charged with armed carjacking.

Research shows that the people who commit violent crime are more likely to fall victim to it. Hardy, who runs an anti-violence nonprofit called Guns Down Friday, knew that because of his age and the people around him, Rashad was on the precipice of both — teetering between finishing school and abandoning it, between resignation and rage, between survival and an early, violent death.

Rashad and his mother agreed to The Washington Post’s spending time with him and identifying him by his full name. His mother declined to be interviewed, saying she is a private person and trusts her son to speak for himself, and requested that details about her other children not be included.

Like most teens, Rashad is impulsive and cares about impressing the people around him. He likes to wear cool clothes and crack jokes that make his friends laugh. His mentors recognize that behavior as normal for a 14-year-old. But they also understand that it would take only one bad decision to ruin Rashad’s life — or worse, end it.

Already, Rashad had flunked out of eighth grade and gone to summer school to catch up. He appeared in the background of a neighborhood rap video where a young person pointed what looks like a gun at the camera. And sometimes, he became so angry that he would shout or punch a friend.

A bullet hole from the shooting that killed 15-year-old Demarcos Pinckney and 17-year-old Kevin Mason, who were Rashad's friends. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

In his city, children and teens are increasingly affected by gun violence. Last year, more people in the nation’s capital were killed than in any year since 1997. Nineteen were kids, 16 felled by gunfire. More than 100 children were shot. The juvenile justice system has been inundated by young people accused of committing crimes with guns — including robberies, carjackings and shootings, which have escalated since the pandemic shuttered schools and disrupted kids’ lives.

Everyone, from the mayor to the police chief to mentors like Hardy, is vowing to reverse the violence consuming the District. They have watched the age of kids both injured and arrested grow younger — 14, 13, 12 — and say their top priority is protecting at-risk children and making their neighborhoods safer.

Rashad is better off than many of these kids. He has never been charged with a crime. He is trying to stay out of trouble. And he wants to graduate from high school and make enough money to travel “anywhere there’s a water park.”

Still, these past few months of Rashad’s life show just how much time and how many resources are needed to give one child a different future.

Hardy handpicked Rashad as one of 10 teenage boys, ages 13 to 15, that she would help in a summer program funded mostly by private grants. She would meet up with them at least twice a week and pay them to speak across D.C. about the importance of gun violence prevention.

Rashad was scheduled to start ninth grade in August, a milestone that would put him and other freshmen in high school hallways with much older students. Some of the older teens have been in and out of juvenile detention centers. Some carry guns. Some have already been shot.


For the first half of the summer, Hardy had almost daily interaction with Rashad. She ordered Ubers to get him to summer school, sent him cash to buy food and gave him a PlayStation 4 so he would stay inside. Then she scheduled the trip to Florida, which, while only 38 hours, was a centerpiece of Hardy’s plan for Rashad — just as it had been for other teens over the past three years of Hardy’s mentorship program. She hoped the change of scenery would let Rashad be a kid, for once, and show him how much fun life could be if he stayed out of trouble.

Rashad knew what Hardy was trying to do. He agreed to be in her program, he said, because he wanted to stay alive.

“We need people who really care,” he said after he was asked what would help children like him survive. “I don’t think anybody really cares.”

Apartment buildings in Rashad's neighborhood near Langston Place in Southeast Washington. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Rashad says he's trying to stay out of trouble and wants to graduate from high school. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Rashad walks in his neighborhood with Jawanna Hardy, his mentor from the nonprofit Guns Down Friday. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Rashad and Hardy sit at a Wingstop in Hillcrest Heights, Md. The two had almost daily interactions during the first half of the summer. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

That Saturday in Orlando, Rashad emerged from the lazy river and made his way to a shallower pool, grabbing a warm chocolate chip cookie on the way. Partly submerged in water, he ate it in three bites. Chocolate smeared across his face and pooled on his fingertips. Then he and his friend started to argue with each other, something about who won in a recent race.

“I swear to God,” his friend said. “I did.”

“On my father,” Rashad replied, “no you didn’t.”

One family nearby looked over at the boys, who were gesticulating with such force that water splashed around them.

Hardy cut them off.

“Stop,” she said. “If any of us dies tomorrow, we’ll be the ones crying at the funeral.”

In moments like this, Hardy reminded the boys that they were all on the same team.

“I love you, Rashad,” she continued, drawing out the L to make her point clear.

He mumbled in return.

“You’re supposed to say it back,” Hardy said.

Rashad was quiet.

He looked down.

“I love you, too.”

Medical workers remove a body from an apartment building in Rashad's neighborhood in August. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

‘The pain, at that age, was already too deep’

No matter how hard Rashad tried, he said he could not remember much about the last time he saw his friends Kevin and Demarcos alive. He could only recall that June evening, when he heard popping noises and ran outside his apartment. Their bodies were sprawled on the pavement.

At first, Rashad thought it was fake. His friends could survive anything. But then he heard Kevin’s mom wail, her high-pitched scream searing through his body, and Rashad, too, began to weep.

Now Rashad was inside a church in Northeast Washington, shoving his head through rows of people until he could see Kevin and Demarcos in caskets. He could bear to only glance at his friends before darting to the back of the room and burying his face in his T-shirt.

“Let’s honor these young men,” the pastor said.

Adults at school and in his neighborhood had told Rashad it was important to talk about his grief. So he invoked the names of his lost friends in daily conversation and made his iPhone lock screen an old picture of his dad. Still, Rashad had never seen a therapist. He was still learning that losing so many people at such a young age can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and greater tendencies toward violence.

Many teens in Rashad’s neighborhood had suffered similar losses. Hardy had taken a group of them, including Kevin Mason, to Florida a year earlier, on a trip like the one with Rashad. She had tried to show them a world outside their neighborhood. But by the end of the year, at least six boys on that trip, Hardy said, were on house arrest or in juvenile confinement for car theft or illegal gun or drug possession. And Kevin — whom Hardy described as a sweet teen in the wrong crowd — was dead at 17.

“I learned the pain, at that age, was already too deep,” Hardy said.

So she opted this year to work with 13-to-15-year-olds, hoping they were young enough to shape and save. She also understood how urgently they needed help.

Last year, a 13-year-old boy — already charged in nine separate carjackings, robberies and assaults — was fatally shot by a man whom police said he tried to carjack. A 12-year-old boy admitted to robbing an Uber Eats driver of his moped. Multiple 14-year-olds faced gun charges.

And Hardy knew those cases represented only the children who got caught.

A view of Rashad's neighborhood, where he and other teens have been affected by gun violence. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

She started formally working with Rashad in May, one month before Kevin and Demarcos were killed. She had been asking Rashad to stay out of neighborhood music videos, to stop posting pictures on Instagram in which he pretended to hold a gun, to save the money he earned through working as an ambassador for her organization instead of spending it all on gummy worms and McDonald’s french fries.

Every day in Rashad’s neighborhood tested his commitment to those lessons, and the day of Kevin’s and Demarcos’s funeral was no exception.

As he stood at the graveyard that afternoon, a group of older teens gathered nearby for a picture. He knew some of them were on the front lines of street conflict in Washington. Hardy had told him public association with the group could be deadly. Rashad fashioned his hand into an L — for Long Live — just like everyone else.

Then the woman with the camera began to count down.

“Long live Kevo,” the teens said. “Long live Demarcos.”

The shutter snapped as Rashad quietly retreated to the back of the crowd until all 5 feet, 4 inches of him were hidden from view.

Rashad plays a racing game in Hardy's car, which was parked outside his apartment building. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

‘Guilt by association’

Rashad lives in a city where many elected officials believe teens need opportunity more than punishment.

There are apprenticeship programs and fitness coaching at a center open to all kids in the District. There are thousands of spots each summer for camps and job programs.

But those initiatives are not effective if kids don’t enroll in them. And D.C.’s deputy mayor of public safety and justice conceded that the city has struggled with connecting its host of programs to the teens. Many of their families have lost faith in government aid.

“Oftentimes, kids don’t know what’s best for them,” said the deputy mayor, Lindsey Appiah. “They may not want to participate in what we know will be therapeutically beneficial for them in stopping criminal activity.”

[With violence surging this summer, a fight to keep D.C.’s kids alive]

Rashad said he didn’t particularly want to go to any city programs or know how to find rides to them. That meant the 14-year-old was signing up to spend much of the summer on his block, off Langston Place, in an area where, according to 2022 census data, households make a median of $33,417 per year and about 12 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees.

Earlier in the summer, Rashad spent much of his time on the front steps of his apartment building. Sometimes, he was approached by neighbors out on parole for various crimes, who reeked of alcohol. He tried to ignore them. Other times, he was embraced by self-appointed neighborhood mentors, who made him laugh and invited him to play video games in a makeshift community center across the street. And every Tuesday and Friday, after summer school, he spent the afternoon with Hardy — either giving out food to families or taking lessons on financial management or conflict resolution at a WeWork in Navy Yard.

Some of the time, though, Rashad was around older teenagers, many of whom had found a sense of belonging and purpose in neighborhood crews. Police said that these groups often feud with young people in other parts of the city, and the disputes can turn deadly.

Rashad tosses a football in his neighborhood. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Rashad grabs a piece of cake during an August football practice. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Rashad Bates takes a knee on the sideline during football practice. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

“Growing up in that neighborhood, you’re automatically part of that crew,” Hardy said. “They call it ‘guilt by association,’ and the association is your address.”

Rashad already had his own problems with younger teens across the city. At one point in the summer, he was too scared to cross an intersection because boys from another middle school lived around there and might want to hurt him.

Rashad knew that Hardy was worried about him following in the older boys’ footsteps, and he knew she had planned the trip to Orlando to get him away from his block. But like most teenagers, the desire to impress his friends followed him everywhere, even on vacation.

Being at a pool in Orlando was more than Rashad could have imagined two weeks earlier in the summer, when he went to a funeral for two friends killed by gunfire. (Emily Davies/The Washington Post)

So when Hardy asked whether Rashad would rather spend the afternoon in Orlando on a helicopter tour or at the Nike store — where Hardy told him he could spend $150 on back-to-school items, as a budgeting exercise — his answer was emphatic.

Rashad goes back-to-school shopping at a Nike store during his trip to Orlando in July. His goal was to purchase an outfit for less than $150. (Emily Davies/The Washington Post)

He burst open the store’s double doors and paused for a minute to behold the walls of bright-orange shoe boxes. Then he got to work.

Rashad quickly chose a pair of Air Force 1s. Size 9, $110. Then he wandered through the kids section, gingerly picking up and putting down graphic tees until he settled on one with a light-blue Nike Swoosh. Kids XL, $12.99. In the Men’s section, he opted for a pair of black joggers. Large, $19.97.

“Look,” he said, showing Hardy the haul. A back-to-school outfit for $143.

Or so Hardy thought before she opened his shoe box and saw socks stuffed inside.

In the middle of the store, she pulled out the socks and looked at Rashad. Anger contorted her face. She accused him of trying to steal. He said the socks were already in the box, and he decided to leave them there.

“You’re going to be like No Savage in another city and get caught,” Hardy said, referring to a D.C. rapper who was sentenced to three years in prison after firing a gun inside a Virginia mall.

Rashad looked back at her.

“He didn’t get spanked,” he said. “He only got three years.”

Hardy sits with Rashad while he tries on a pair of shoes at a DTLR in Hillcrest Heights, Md. Like many 14-year-olds, Rashad is a fan of looking cool. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post. )

‘You have to get help’

Rashad walked into the WeWork and plopped down in a black chair, refusing to make eye contact with his mentor.

Hardy sat across from him, staring at her computer so she could avoid looking at Rashad.

It had been one week since they returned from Florida and days since Hardy blocked Rashad’s number and vowed to stop working with him. After she accused him of trying to steal at the Nike store, she laid Rashad off from his ambassadorship for Guns Down Friday. In texts and FaceTime calls, he told her to never come back to his neighborhood, cursed her out, and said “some vulgar things” that left Hardy shaken and afraid.

“Let’s go upstairs,” Hardy finally said.

Inside the beige conference room, the round table was empty except for a book titled “Anger Management Workbook for Kids” and a PlayStation remote, which Hardy told Rashad would act as a microphone, designating whose turn it was to speak.

Hardy pulled out her phone and dialed her uncle.

“I want you to talk about the day you got shot,” she told him, and placed her phone on speaker.

For the next 12 minutes, Hardy’s uncle talked about a teen he used to mentor, who was also from the Langston Place area. They spent years together. Then one day, when the teen was high and angry, he shot Hardy’s uncle in the eye.

Rashad put his forehead on the table.

“Because he was angry, he shot him in the face,” Hardy said, now looking at Rashad. “So when you sent me that text, it made me feel like you were going to do the same thing to me that he did to my uncle. And that boy loved my uncle so much.”

Rashad raised his head but did not look at Hardy. He instead focused on the blank wall.

“Out of the ones he worked with, that kid was the roughest and the toughest,” Hardy said of her uncle’s mentees. Of the kids she mentored now, she asked Rashad, “who’s the roughest and the toughest?”


“You,” Hardy said. She stared at Rashad.

Rashad toyed with the PlayStation remote. Then he spoke, still not looking at Hardy.

“I apologize for sending you them messages and making you feel how you’re feeling right now,” he said. “I wish I had made better decisions.”

Hardy sighed. More silence. Then, “I accept your apology.”

She walked over to the empty whiteboard, picked up a red marker and wrote “PTSD” in big block letters.

“This is something you struggle with that you don’t even know about. PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder,” Hardy said. “When somebody gets killed, when you lose someone, that’s traumatic. You have to get help.”

Rashad speaks Nov. 17 at a banquet for Guns Down Friday. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
During his speech, Rashad talked about the friends whom he has lost. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
Hardy helped Rashad list all seven of his friends who were victims of gun violence. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

Rashad’s future

Dressed in a white button-down shirt and silver tie, Rashad sat in the front of a private room at a waterfront restaurant in Southwest Washington. He twirled his hair, looking anywhere but toward the tables of people there to listen to the panel of children affected by gun violence.

The moderator stood up, looked at Rashad and began to introduce him:

“We talked, and I remember the one thing I asked you was, ‘Do you know anyone who has been shot?’” The moderator paused. “I knew the answer, but I was surprised by the answer.”

The room was quiet. Glasses of red wine sat untouched on white tablecloths. Rashad rose and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his slacks.

“Hi everybody, my name is Rashad,” he said, before turning his words to those he knew who had been shot. “They was friends from around the neighborhood. We used to hang out.”

It was November, five months since Rashad saw Kevin and Demarcos dead on the sidewalk and more than two months since he started ninth grade.

He had joined a football team. He had been suspended multiple times from school, including once in the first week for cursing at a teacher. He and Hardy had started going together to church.

He was still posting pictures on Instagram with his hands in the shape of a gun, but Rashad had not appeared in any neighborhood music videos.

Hardy, sitting a few seats away from him, spoke up.

“He’s being modest. … Those were just the recent ones,” she said of Kevin and Demarcos. “Seven people from his neighborhood,” and then she listed Rashad’s friends felled by guns before they turned 17.

Gerald Watson, 15. Karon Brown, 11. Jakhi Snider, 16.

“Deandre,” Rashad whispered, referring to Deandre Coleman, 16.

“Stephon,” he added, remembering Stephon Shreeves, 14.

A slide show at the banquet shows a photo of Hardy's uncle after he had been shot by a teen whom he was mentoring. In the summer, he described the experience to Rashad. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

Hardy told the room how hard it had been to keep Rashad on course. “Several times, I’m like, ‘Look, Rashad, I’m done with you,’” she said. “Because it’s just so much.”

Near them, a slide show cycled through pictures. Rashad smiling against a brick wall. The Guns Down Friday logo. Then, Hardy’s uncle in a hospital bed, gauze over his left eye.

“I took him to Florida,” Hardy said.

Before she could finish the sentence, Rashad spoke up.

“I acted out,” he said, hands now on his hips. He flashed a wide smile. The people at the tables laughed.

“Don’t give up. You are such a leader,” Hardy said to Rashad. “Thank you, Rashad, for being here and fighting through.”

Rashad looked at the rows of people applauding for him and beamed, as though he could see what Hardy was trying to give him: a future.

Rashad says he agreed to get involved with Guns Down Friday because he wants to stay alive. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
About this story

Story editing by Matt Zapotosky. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design by Dwuan June. Design editing by Christian Font. Copy editing by Frances Moody and Phil Lueck. Additional support by Jon Gerberg, Lynda Robinson and Jay Wang.