Former Westside High School principal Julia Daniely keeps a special text message she received from a student.
Last summer Leonard Spivey Jr. was so excited he had to share the news with Daniely.
“I’m finished. I finally finished my course work,” he wrote, announcing he would be graduating in the summer.
He inquired about taking the SAT to get into college.
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A few weeks later, 18-year-old Spivey was lying dead from gunshot wounds inside the Chick-fil-A on Bloomfield Road.
Daniely’s phone lit up as frantic teens called with the news.
“Leonard’s dead and Julian shot him,” the students told her.
She had counseled Spivey and his alleged killer, Julian Kongquee, when they attended Westside.
Spivey was one of six teens, 18 or younger, who died in Macon shootings last year. Kongquee also was 18 at the time of the shooting.
In the year since Feb. 14, 2018 — the day of the Parkland massacre that left 14 students and three adults dead — at least 51 people 18 or younger have died in Georgia from gun-related injuries, according to a McClatchy newspapers analysis of data from the independent research group Gun Violence Archive done in conjunction with the Trace, a nonprofit newsroom that studies gun violence.
Nationwide, at least 1,149 young people were killed by gun violence during that year-long span, the equivalent of a Parkland every five days. The Trace assembled a team of more than 200 high school students to research and write 100-word portraits of every named victim, including the 51 in Georgia. They are being published today.
Augusta-Richmond County saw four gun deaths, Columbus had three and Savannah two during that same period.
As Bibb County’s homicide rate spiked in 2018, sheriff’s investigators like Sgt. Joseph Vamper saw a disturbing trend in the number of teen victims and murder suspects.
One of the accused killers was just 15 years old.
“They don’t value life, for one. They live for the moment. They don’t live for the future,” said Vamper, a 17-year-veteran of the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office .
‘We have to get our hands dirty’
Daniely, now the director of SOAR Academy Personalized Learning Center, joins fellow educators, law enforcement officials, the district attorney and others continuing to look for ways to stop or at least slow the increasing number of teen shootings.
Macon has escaped school shootings that have plagued other communities across the country, but Daniely has seen plenty of collateral damage from youth violence.
Macon reached 41 homicides in 2018 and Daniely personally knows about 20 of the victims or suspects, including four of the six teens killed in the past year.
“They all sat in this seat in my office,” she said, placing her manicured hand on a chair.
Three of those four homicide victims were in her Twilight extended hours program at Westside, including 18-year-olds DaKwaun Faulks and Shondricka Adams, who was continuing her studies at Central Georgia Technical College when she was hit by gunfire intended for someone else, investigators say.
Daniely “worked diligently” talking twice this school year with 16-year-old Kendrick Davis, who was briefly in the Twilight program before “he chose a different path,” she said.
Davis was shot to death on Warpath Road in east Macon on Oct. 31. Five young men ages 16 to 20 are charged with murder in the case that sheriff’s deputies say stemmed from an earlier dispute, possibly over a girl.
In her new role at SOAR Academy, Bibb County’s alternative school, Daniely caters to discipline problems and students who are struggling to keep up with their studies.
Daniely took charge of the program last fall after she identified her destiny and purpose — standing in the gap for Macon’s young people.
Tears began to flow as she sat in court last June while waiting to give a character reference for another former student pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in a deadly shooting at a Bloomfield convenience store.
She listened as Judge Howard Simms questioned defendant after defendant, most of them young black males.
“What was your level of education?”
“Can you read?”
Her heart was breaking as she realized she holds a major key to their success.
“All of this is connected to education, the lack of education,” she said. “Being able to survive, to have money, and they find this fast way of living.”
Now she is determined to envelop her students in love and guide them on the path to success at SOAR academy, which stands for School of Opportunity, Achievement and Results.
Her mohawk haircut, stylish clothes and sequined high heels are designed to get the kids’ attention. She hopes to inspire them to work hard and buy their own fine clothes.
Telling students to “stay in school” is not enough, she said.
“I just don’t have a lot of patience for talk,” Daniely said. “We have to get our hands dirty.”
Bibb sheriff’s investigator Robert Shockley has interrogated most of Macon’s 2018 murder suspects, including the young ones.
He sees young people living in the moment and not focusing on the future.
“No one’s thinking past today,” he said. “Why they’re shooting at each other, I don’t understand it. It’s like they’re doing it to impress others.”
Vamper finds some young people carrying for protection but others see guns as a status symbol.
“They believe no matter where they go they have to have guns.”
There is no federal minimum age requirement for having long guns or rifles, but federal law prohibits anyone under 18 from having a handgun or ammunition for it.
Weapons are easy to come by on the streets, Vamper said.
“These kids trade guns like crazy,” he said. “They’re changing hands like wildfire.”
Social media accounts showcase videos and photographs of young men and women waving guns, smoking dope, carrying wads of cash. Facebook Live shots show it all.
“That’s a thing for them to actually flaunt what they have,” Vamper said.
Many parents are shocked to learn what their children are posting on social sites.
“The youth are more technologically savvy and they love to put everything they do on social media,” he said.
The internet also is blurring gang boundaries.
“Years ago, if you were in a gang, you stayed in your territory,” Vamper said. “Now you have these kinds of disorganized gang members all over the place.”
Many of Macon’s youth crimes are fueled by retaliation or ongoing disputes.
Bibb County sheriff’s investigator Marcus Baker said Spivey shot Kongquee nearly a year before their fatal confrontation at the fast food restaurant across from Macon Mall.
The teens had other run-ins throughout the year where Spivey had been the aggressor, Baker said.
Many of the youth slayings and violence can be linked to other crimes or tension between rival groups.
Two of the teens alleged to have been with Spivey when Kongquee was shot at Westminster Apartments in October of 2017 are currently jailed on murder and armed robbery charges in the deaths of two Macon convenience store clerks.
‘Focus beyond gangs and guns’
His anti-gang prosecution initiative began levying longer sentences by tacking on gang charges for crimes committed to fund gang activity or enhance a group’s reputation.
Cooke believes the success of that program has locked away enough gang members to create a vacuum that is sucking in younger members to fill the void.
“We need to keep going after and holding gang members accountable, but they have a full bench,” Cooke said. “I want less folks to lock up.”
Cooke launched another initiative in August to target juvenile crime.
The Macon-Bibb County School-Justice Partnership Agreement allows students accused of certain misdemeanors to forgo court and potential criminal records.
Cases like simple assaults, minor disturbances and possession of alcohol, drugs or cigarettes can be handled within the school system.
“Our focus beyond guns and gangs is intervening in these lives so they don’t become a victim or a defendant,” Cooke said.
Once children enter the criminal justice system, they are more likely to be a repeat offender, he said.
Following a national model originating in Clayton County, Cooke partnered with the Bibb County School System to intercept troubled youths and get them the services they need.
Felony cases, such as bringing a weapon to school, threatening to shoot up a school or attacking a teacher, are still handled in the courts.
Between August and Jan. 24, 84 students have been referred to the program, which is using resources already available in the community.
School resource officers can refer students to counseling, workshops and community programs to get the help they need without the criminal record.
Last spring, Bibb County Superior Court Judge Verda Colvin called it a “crisis” that 212 students had been arrested between Aug. 1, 2017, and the end of March 2018.
Sixty of those arrests happened at Westside High School under Daniely’s watch.
“I know they’re involved in gangs and I work to just get them out of Macon... so they can make it,” Daniely said. “I’m not really trying to judge gang members, just making sure there are no more killings.”
As an evangelist, she relies on her faith for the strength to fight the evils destroying young lives.
Since the beginning of the year, she prays every Friday at midnight for the safety of her students, she said.
Daniely makes sure she is accessible to them 24/7. When there’s nowhere to turn and no one to talk to, Daniely wants teens to reach out.
Although she said she doesn’t evangelize her students, Daniely recognizes she couldn’t bear the responsibility of Bibb County’s troubled youths without her own bedrock of faith.
“It becomes very, very difficult,” she said. “Especially Spivey. We worked so hard to get him graduated and during the school year, he was in and out.”
Her Facebook post following Spivey’s death had this advice: “Students, let God handle what has happened. Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.”
Daniely isn’t sure exactly what caused the friction between Spivey and Kongquee, who she said has never known to be involved in a gang.
Kongquee didn’t have a gun until after he was shot, according to information uncovered in the investigation of Spivey’s death, investigators said.
“He was a good kid,” investigator Vamper said.
Kongquee’s attorney and family declined to comment in the ongoing legal case.
Investigator Shockley said lifestyle choices are getting kids into trouble.
“A lot of kids glorify firearms but don’t think of the consequences of using it,” he said. “They get into it and instead of talking it out or fighting it out, they shoot it out. ... It’s like they’re too scared to fight.”
Investigator Vamper says young people need clear direction and early discipline about the dangers of firearms.
“You have to develop a pathway for your children to follow. You can’t just leave them out there,” he said.
Daniely stresses the importance of making good decisions. One wrong move is all it takes, she said.
“You have to be living right every day. Our young adults are dying in record numbers.”