NEW HAVEN >> Jacob Craggett will not be walking the hallways with classmates at Hillhouse High School when the district reopens its doors this week.
Jacob, 15, a standout student-athlete who played football for the school, was killed earlier this month in a triple shooting in which his brother, Joshua, was also critically injured.
While most students will share their good experiences of summer vacation on the first day back to school, others will suffer through the pain and grief of losing a classmate to gun violence.
For Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina, resilience and normality will be critical steps the first day of school for staff and students.
“We want students to get off on a good start with the first day of school being a positive experience, and we’ll be making sure all of our messages to students are positive,” said Carolina.
“We can’t dismiss the fact that we’ve lost one of our bright students over the summer, but we’re here to support our students and we have people in place to assist with the grieving process,” said Carolina, who’s been principal since 2010. “His mother made it very clear to us that she wants us to turn this bad experience into something positive for our students; we’ll be honoring her wishes.”
On Aug. 8, police responded at about 9 p.m. to several 911 calls reporting gunfire at Davenport Avenue and Vernon Street. Officers arrived and found two victims with gunshot wounds.
At the same time, police received more 911 calls about a vehicle located on Park Street near Howard Avenue, with a man inside who also had been shot, according to the release.
Police believe a car in which the men were riding was approached by two or more people while it was stopped at Davenport Avenue and Vernon Street. Several rounds were then fired into the car.
Jacob, who would have been a sophomore at the beginning of the school year, was shot in the back while attempting to help his wounded brother.
“I was working when it happened and he was on his way home for curfew,” said Lisa Craggett, Jacob’s mother.
Craggett said her son’s curfew was 7 p.m., but she had extended the curfew last month to 9 p.m.
“I have no regrets because I was hard on him and that’s what a mother needs to do,” Craggett said.
“A lot of people have this perception because it was gunfire that it was drugs or gang-related. It was neither,” she said.
“God had another plan for my son and it was just his time. You can’t imagine the pain of losing a child.”
News of the 15-year-old’s death sent shock waves through the city and the Hillhouse High School community.
The school’s crisis team immediately assembled and were available to serve students, staff and the football team before and after the funeral service, according to school officials.
“When the information became available to us about the death Jacob,” said school social worker Delores Linnen, “staff was in place immediately. We met with the coaches and students to reassure them that support was available during this difficult time, “
“On the first day of school, we’ll take the lead of our school’s crisis plan based on the needs of students,” said Linnen, who’s been the school’s social worker for 26 years.
“We will try to keep things as normal as possible for students in a crisis like this. It’s important for normalcy.”
Linnen said throughout the years the crisis team has built a foundation with teachers to look for signs in students who may not be able to verbalize their concerns or emotions.
“We sent out information to our staff reidentifying the support team and letting them know how they and students can access us,” Linnen said.
“Teachers have been good about contacting the support staff when they see certain things,” she said.
Superintendent of Schools Garth Harries said Jacob’s death was a senseless tragedy.
“By all accounts, Jacob was a good kid and not a target for anything; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Harries said.
According to Harries, the district has a support system of grief and trauma counseling with an emphasis on teaching skills of resilience.
“Our structure and relationship with kids needs to be informed by and supported by the trauma many have experienced,” Harries said.
“We have to be supportive of their resilience as growth as young people in spite of that trauma,” he said.
Reggie Lytle, the school’s head football coach, said Jacob was a likable kid.
“Kids gravitated to him. Hillhouse is a very tight-knit family and it was devastating to a lot of us,” Lytle said. “He was competing for starting tackle; we were looking forward to coaching him this season.”
Team captain David Johnson, 17, said the season will be dedicated to Jacob.
“We have the opportunity to play a game he’ll never play again,” said David Johnson, a senior who wants to attend Duke University after graduation. “I’ll be keeping that in mind during the seasonal. We’re fortunate to play a game that we love. We’ll be playing hard for those who have fallen.”
Jalen Gardner, 17, also co-captain, said he and Jacob shared a special bond.
“He looked up to me; we connected when he was a freshman last year,” Gardner said. “I’ll be playing for him the whole season.”
In an effort to help students with sports equipment, a scholarship has been set up in Jacob’s name.
Craggett said the first $1,000 was donated to the school by William Santillo, president of New Haven Gridiron Club.
“I’m doing what Jacob would want me to do,” said Lisa Craggett. “Jacob was such a loving and compassionate young man. He would give his last. It’s to help any child that wants to play sports that may not have the proper equipment.”
She said organizers don’t want anything to discourage kids from playing.
“If this helps one student get off the streets or from becoming involved with gangs or drugs, we’ve saved one child.” Craggett said.
Craggett said her son didn’t die in vain and she is doing her part to keep her son’s name alive.
Shahid Abdul-Karim is the New Haven Register’s Community Engagement Editor.