Supporting the Emotional Health of Young People in Southeast DC

Testimony Delivered to the DC Council - November 8, 2023

Good morning,

My name is Mashea Ashton and I am the founder and CEO of Digital Pioneers Academy, a computer science-focused charter middle and high school in Washington DC.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. There is no more important issue facing our city than addressing youth violence, and I’m hopeful that this hearing - and the policy discussion it will inspire will lead to positive change.

Unfortunately, I have become all too familiar with the horrific reality of our city’s youth violence epidemic. Last year, we lost four students to gun violence in shootings off campus - Antoine Manning, Jakhi Snider, DeMarcos Pinckney, and Jaylin Osborne.

Our city is in a crisis, and it is our collective responsibility to do more to protect our young people.

In the aftermath of our tragedies, the City provided exceptional services to our school. Counselors helped many members of our community - myself included - process our anger and our grief. And this fall, many of you on this Council visited our campus, which meant a lot to our staff and families as it showed that our city leaders care. Councilmen Phil Mendelson, Kenyan R. McDuffie, Robert C. White, and Charles Allen, thank you.

While we have moved beyond the immediate grief, the pain and trauma remain. We still have siblings of the shooting victims enrolled at our school. And each week comes a new birthday or an anniversary that is impossible to ignore. I attended a vigil for a student who passed one year ago and asked the family what has changed. They still do not feel safe in their community.

At school, our team of caring educators can keep our scholars safe, engaged, and cared for. Outside of the school walls, our influence is limited. But that doesn’t mean we will stop trying. As our City leaders, you can help in this effort.

First, we need to expand after-school programs for youth. In partnership with the Washington Commanders, we launched our first football program this season, and have expanded team sports offerings for both young men and women. We need to make schools community hubs.

Second, mental health counselors are not only needed in a crisis. Public schools need the resources to make mental health services part of the fabric of their school community. This year, we have expanded counseling for young people and the adults in the building and it has made a big difference.

Third, youth in DC need to be occupied with meaningful activities over the summer. Teenagers need opportunities for meaningful work in the summer. And we need to expand Summit Youth Programs and better coordinate services across the city.

I’m an educator of 600 amazing students. Our team of educators would rather spend our time thinking about how to teach them to code, but unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury.

Thank you for the opportunity.

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