Lifestyle

Teen’s death was third brush with gun violence in three years

Fifteen-year-old Swaysee Rankin was loved.

The friends and relatives who gathered last week to honor his life and death wanted to make sure everyone knew it, so they brought balloons, permanent markers and gluesticks to his vigil. They took turns writing messages on balloons and sticking photos of their friend to poster boards tacked to a wall.

They offered each other half-hugs and took pictures with their handiwork. Other teenagers arranged candles on the sidewalk.

It had been three days since a driver had dropped off Swaysee at South Shore Hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. He died less than two hours later. The driver remains unidentified.

Swaysee’s Sept. 4 death was his third documented encounter with gun violence: It had been two years since someone in a moving car opened fire on Swaysee and a cousin as they walked toward his home, leaving the boy in critical condition. It had been three years since he used his shirt to give first aid to a little girl who he witnessed being shot. Having been shot is itself a risk factor for becoming a victim of gun violence in the future, experts told the Tribune.

The years 2018 and 2019 saw a total of 119 homicide victims under 17, according to Northwestern University professor Maryann Mason.

Mason, who runs a surveillance system tracking violent deaths, said 90 of those young people’s deaths were related to a firearm. And 21 of those victims had previously suffered a firearm injury.

Data from the city of Chicago Violence Reduction Dashboard shows that almost two-thirds of the city’s homicides and nonlethal shootings took place in 15 majority-Black and brown community areas covering about a fourth of the city’s population.

Tribune data updated through Sept. 8 shows that 350 of the city’s 431 homicide victims in 2023 were Black and that 367 of those victims were male.

“Firearm violence is concentrated in certain subpopulations,” Mason said. “But for those populations, it’s sort of relentless.”

At the vigil, the crowd swelled with people dressed in black who brought balloons to the crowd at 75th Street and Phillips Avenue. Eventually the group spilled off the sidewalk and pooled around a parked car and speakers. Someone shut off the music.

The crowd screamed, “We love you, Swaysee!” and dozens of balloons billowed skyward with their messages.

Swaysee’s older sister, Swaysiana, 17, slid off the car where she had been perched to sit under a nearby awning. Some friends and family coaxed her back to the center of the gathering. Someone shouted for quiet so Swaysiana could speak. Another round of balloons floated up.

Swaysiana Rankin, 17, sits atop a car parked on East 75th Street in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood as friends and family of her brother, Swaysee Rankin, gather on Sept. 7, 2023.

Somewhere from the middle of the crowd, someone began to sob.

UChicago Medicine Trauma Center Director Selwyn Rogers Jr. said those who lose close friends or relatives to gun violence are at an elevated risk of becoming gun violence victims.

“The milieu of (a child’s) life hasn’t changed, but the adverse exposure to trauma … has significantly changed,” he said.

Survivors of gun violence victims may react by becoming hypervigilant or risk averse. Conversely, he said, a survivor might increase his or her risk-taking behavior.

“Both of these (responses) can be traced back to trauma, especially trauma that’s untreated,” he said.

Shawnta Williams arrived at the vigil still wearing her turquoise work scrubs. Williams, 37, ordinarily works a double shift but took off early to attend. When her daughter, La’Mya Sparks, was shot in 2020, it had been Swaysee who first came to her aid with his shirt until paramedics arrived.

La’Mya, who is now 13, held a handful of red balloons to be released later on that evening.

Williams and her family moved to the suburbs after La’Mya was shot but had stayed in touch with Swaysee and his family. She pulled out her phone to show a photo of him posing for the camera with her girls and described him as “a class clown, the life of the room, sweet, always respectful.”

When she first heard Swaysee had died, Williams said she had been dumbstruck. After they confirmed the news with his parents, Williams said La’Mya and her two older sisters were “on the phone, up all night.”

She kept them home from school the next day.

“They’ve been taking it really hard,” she said.

Monaee Ortega gathers with Swaysee Rankin's friends and family as the group remembers the 15-year-old on East 75th Street in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood on Sept. 7, 2023.

Swaysee had been excited to be back at school, Williams said. She’d just seen his back-to-school photos.

“Now that’s all been taken away,” she said.

Rogers, of UChicago Medicine’s Trauma Center, said a person’s ZIP code and the amount of resources their community has at its disposal are significant factors in determining whether they are at risk of being a gun violence victim.

The obvious goal is to avoid being shot in the first place.

“That is the gold standard: Do not ever get shot,” Rogers said.

But after a person has been a victim of gun violence, he said, their odds of suffering a subsequent gun injury increase.

“Once you’re shot, you need radical transformation of your life to avoid getting shot again,” he said.

The external factors that put someone at risk for shooting don’t change after an injury, Rogers explained, but a person’s response to trauma and the kind of care they receive in the wake of a seismic event like a shooting can produce higher odds of their being reinjured in the future.

“You’re in the same infested waters, walking the same streets,” Rogers said. “What are the odds of you breaking away from that?”

Mason, of Northwestern, explained that the circumstances that lead to a young person being shot often escalate with time.

“The associations with violence have a lot to do with the environment in which the victim is embedded,” she said. “If they are in a risk situation at 13, it’s very likely that that situation will intensify as they get older.”

And those are just the external factors that can produce a higher risk of future gun-related injuries, they said. Rogers said children who are shot or otherwise exposed to violence have a critical need for therapy, counseling and other services that help them metabolize their experiences. But those services aren’t universally available, he said.

“I would love to know the arc of the kid’s life from when he created a tourniquet to stop the bleeding of the little girl to when he got shot the first time himself,” Rogers said. “Did he get help, having had that trauma?”

Swaysee’s stepfather, Wayne Looney, 35, said Swaysee healed quickly after he was first shot, in part because he’d been eager to get back to school. Looney said he remembered a physical therapist coming to help him. It was a relatively short period until his stepson was the “same Swaysee he’s always been, maybe a little bit more aware.”

He did not recall Swaysee being offered mental rehabilitation or talk therapy in the wake of his second brush with gun violence.

Had the family been offered counseling or other mental health assistance in the wake of Swaysee’s injury, Looney said he “most definitely” would have taken advantage of it for his stepson.

“I think it should be offered to all families who go through something terrible like that,” he said.

In Rogers’ view, whether and how to build up those resources is less about money and more a question of priorities.

“People say there’s not enough money,” he said. “That’s not true, there’s not the will. So let’s have the will to invest in those things.”

Mason added that hospital-based crisis responders can help prevent onetime victims of gun violence from becoming repeat victims.

“That one comes a little late, because an injury has already occurred, but the idea is to stop the sequencing of injury,” she said.

Friends and family of Swaysee Rankin release balloons into the sky during a vigil to remember the 15-year-old on Sept. 7, 2023.

Mason and Rogers both named violence interruption or street outreach programs as effective ways to prevent firearm injuries. Mason described violence interrupters as “people with lived experience in (violent) situations who work in street environments to bring people to more peaceful resolutions when disputes happen.”

But they both said the most effective way to help children avoid injuries and death through gun violence is to help them structure their lives in a way that places them at lower risk.

Mason named job training, social and emotional wellness support and extracurriculars like arts and sports as avenues to help young people direct away from risky situations.

Rogers took an even longer view of preventive strategies, ranging from the availability of guns in the United States to the early childhood education that is not universally offered to children aged 0-5.

In a conversation shortly after the vigil, Looney said his stepson had a big heart, “too big,” and always looked out for others.

He remembered getting into prank wars with Swaysee and the way he cared for his younger siblings.

“He’d get $20, he’d spend it all on his little brothers and sisters,” Looney said. “He’d take them to the park, he’d take them everywhere.”

Once Swaysee had asked to have his friends come over. Looney said they couldn’t spend the night at the house.

“He took all the blankets and the covers in the house for his friends and they slept on the back porch,” he said.

Looney said his family is still trying to come to terms with what happened to Swaysee.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said of his younger children.

Swaysee died the evening of Labor Day. Rogers told the Tribune he had been on call that night and got word that he should expect a patient to arrive at the hospital shortly.

“I heard about a kid who was at South Shore (Hospital) who was shot, who was coming to UChicago (Medicine),” he said.

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He never came.

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