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On the morning of April 2, the inside of the HIS Church on Stanton Terrace SE was crowded with people. Those in attendance were gathered to pay their respects to Robert DeJuan Jennings, a 15-year-old who was a sophomore at Ballou Senior High School.
Immediate family took up many of the seats, and out-of-town relatives occupied another large cluster of chairs. Teachers and members of the African Heritage Dance Center, an organization Robert volunteered for, filled even more rows. For all of Robert’s loved ones in attendance, though,the service was much smaller and more intimate than the funerals of other Ballou students in recent years.
Ballou’s principal, Daniel Hudson, talked about Robert’s commendable “home training” and his quiet, soft-spoken demeanor, but there weren’t any other community leaders on hand to stand up and say a few words. The mayor didn’t show up, and no Ward 8 councilmember addressed the people.
But the most conspicuous absence was that of the throngs of teenagers, wearing commemorative T-shirts honoring the departed, who show up whenever a young person dies a premature death.
“Usually when a teenager dies, the church is full of teenagers,” says Margaret Jennings, Robert’s grandmother.
“You could count the number of teenagers there,” says Janice Jennings, Robert’s mother. “It was mostly family.”
Robert isn’t the only Ballou student to die this year or even the latest young person to perish. Since the beginning of last year, five Ballou students have been killed: James Richardson was shot inside the school in February 2004, Sherrod Miller was beaten to death in March 2004, Timothy Hamilton was shot in April 2004, Ashley Walker was shot in September 2004, and Lavelle Jones was killed this April. But because of the manner in which he died, Robert Jennings’ name lacks the resonance of those of other students who have passed away. Robert died on March 26 of multiple organ failure, sepsis, and staphylococcal pneumonia. The teenager, who suffered from Type 1 diabetes, went to the emergency room at Greater Southeast Community Hospital on March 14 complaining of a headache, nagging cough, and body aches. Margaret Jennings says he was diagnosed with an ear infection, given prescriptions for penicillin and Motrin, and sent home. He died 12 days later.
The days following Lavelle Jones’ death brought a school visit from the mayor, a call for strict curfew enforcement, and a funeral packed with mourning students; the period of time following Robert’s death included none of these things. There were no candlelight vigils, no talking heads screaming about injustice, and no newspaper spreads documenting a young life cut short.
The Jennings family says that Ballou’s administration was “very supportive” during Robert’s hospitalization and after his death in March. Hudson says that Robert’s family and friends were extended the same services as the loved ones of any other Ballou student who dies: A grief team was brought in to talk to students in the days following Robert’s death, and the school administration worked with the city to ensure that the Jennings family had everything needed for Robert’s burial.
Jasimine Maddox, 15, a ninth-grader at Ballou, says that she knew Robert and that, among the student body, there is a lot more talk about the recent death of Lavelle. “It could be because more people in the street knew [Lavelle],” she says.
Hudson says that regardless of the circumstances surrounding a young person’s death, the grieving process is the same. But he concedes that there can be subtle differences in how deaths resulting from illness and violent deaths are handled.
“In Robert’s situation, it was something that happened in the hospital, and as unfortunate as it may be, you don’t get the press, the media, knocking on your door,” Hudson says.
“This may be simplistic, but it’s similar to a rubbernecking situation after an accident….I guess I look at it as that,” Hudson continues. “Grief is grief, but at the same time, if the situation is really spectacular, it takes longer to deal with than a mild scenario. I think people tend to gravitate to hurt and crime.”
Tanika Carter, a 16-year-old sophomore at Ballou, says that more emphasis is typically placed on violent deaths like Lavelle’s. “Maybe because it was actually with a gun,” she says. “That gives it more attention than someone with an illness. But there should be attention on both even though they passed in different ways.”
The Jenningses spend a lot of time reminiscing about Robert, whom they all refer to by his nickname, Juan. They discuss his cooking skills, volunteer work, fondness for writing poetry, and computer genius, and how he always took care of everyone in the family. Robert made repairs to the Jennings family home, waited up at night to make sure his older sister, Kellithia, got home safely, and made sure his grandmother and mother kept up with their diabetes-medicine regimens.
“It’s almost like he was too good to be here,” says Margaret Jennings.
Although Robert’s death didn’t inspire outcries against the public-health infrastructure in the way that a murder brings cries of stopping the violence, the Jenningses are working to make sure that other young people are spared the same fate. They are considering taking action against Greater Southeast Community Hospital for its diagnosis of Robert when he showed up in its triage center. Margaret and Janice Jennings allege that staff were negligent in sending Robert home and believe that he had pneumonia when he was seen; if the staff had caught it, they argue, he would still be alive.
“People said, ‘That’s not gonna bring him back,’” Margaret says. “But it might stop another mistake.”
Despite their own loss, the Jennings family feels sorry for families who are not only suffering with the loss of a child but are forced to imagine their sons or daughters being gunned down or stabbed.
“Other boys—15, 16, 17—are being killed,” Margaret says. “But he went peacefully.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photo courtesy of Family.