The shopping center became the site of periodic violence, and when students returned to in-person instruction in August, assaults began increasing there and at the high school, according to data police provided to The Washington Post. Then last month, 18-year-old senior Luis Mejia Hernandez was stabbed to death in a parking-lot melee involving 30 to 50 teenagers, authorities said.
The stabbing came as city officials in Alexandria have been debating what presence police should have at schools, and business owners and the teen’s parents questioned whether the school or law enforcement should have done more to prevent the killing.
“The kids leave at whatever time they want, return at whatever time they want, and one as a parent has no idea,” said Osmin Mejia, Luis Mejia’s father, adding that the high school was “a little out of control now.”
Police calls for service at city schools had risen sharply after in-person classes resumed in August, and police made 11 arrests at city high schools from September through December, according to the most recent data from Alexandria City Public Schools.
In 2021, Alexandria police responded to 15 assaults, five offenses involving possession of weapons, two aggravated assaults and one rape at the high school campuses or immediately nearby — most all after students returned to classes in the late summer, according to the data obtained by The Post. From Jan. 1 through June 2 this year, police responded to nine assaults, three weapons offenses and one aggravated assault at the same locations, the data show. Alexandria police spokesman Marcel Bassett noted that multiple offenses could stem from the same incident.
Assaults at the Bradlee Shopping Center or immediately nearby also increased, from one in the first five months of last year to 12 so far this year through June 2, according to the data. Luis Mejia’s stabbing is the only homicide recorded so far this year at the shopping center; none were reported in 2021, Bassett said.
Alexandria public school officials referred questions about security to the city police department. A police spokesman said ensuring school safety is among the department’s “highest priorities.”
Police arrested a 16-year-old student last week in Luis Mejia’s killing. Authorities have not named the teen because he is a minor. The state has charged him with second-degree murder and is seeking to try him as an adult, according to information released by the Alexandria Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
The investigation into the motive for the stabbing and the cause of the group fight is ongoing, police said.
In a presentation from the school board’s March 10 meeting, Alexandria City Public Schools officials noted that “we regularly collaborate with state and local safety officials (EMS, Police, Fire, Emergency Management, Health Department) to ensure our schools are well prepared in case of an emergency.” The presentation said that “each school has a Crisis Management Team with members who have been trained on the appropriate response during an emergency.” Cameras and after-hours security staff provide surveillance inside and outside all facilities, and access to the schools is tightly controlled, the presentation added.
Hundreds of family, friends, teachers, school officials and students attended Luis Mejia’s funeral last week. Many wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the teen’s name and photo. A GoFundMe account set up to assist his family with funeral costs had raised $22,405 as of Wednesday, more than twice the goal. School officials awarded Luis Mejia a posthumous diploma on Saturday.
His aunt, Sara Mendoza, said her nephew was a conscientious teen who loved soccer and exercise and whose “dreams were cut short.”
“We can’t describe the pain we felt when we saw the videos, everything that happened, when we saw he was flat on the ground and no one helped him,” she said, describing cellphone videos taken by some witnesses that have circulated online.
In the restaurants, liquor stores and nail and tanning salons at the shopping center, the stabbing took some employees and managers by surprise. But others said they have noticed more tussles recently and were rattled by a shooting in September that left another teen wounded. The shooting came after a fight at the McDonald’s, authorities said.
Jason Ward, an employee at a Korean fried chicken restaurant, said that he usually sees police when he drives into work and that their presence is especially noticeable around lunchtime, when the students are most likely to be congregating.
“It seems like any incident we have involves high-schoolers,” said Mason Fiedler, a manager at a battery shop. After the shooting in September, he said, the McDonald’s posted an armed security officer and refused indoor-dining patrons on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Those measures have since been rescinded, Fiedler said.
Fiedler said teenagers began meeting up regularly at the shopping center after the coronavirus pandemic began and schools shifted to virtual learning. After schools reopened, the teens kept trekking over during their lunch hours, he said. Fiedler and an employee at his shop recalled the shooting, the stabbing and a strange episode in which teens began to hurl large rocks in the alley behind their row of shops. “The nail-salon people were scared of going out there,” Fiedler recalled.
“We’ve all been in high school. We can tell when there’s tension,” Ward said when asked about Luis Mejia’s stabbing. “I think the school dropped the ball.”
City officials have been debating for months whether and what kind of police presence is required in public schools. The city council voted to remove school resource officers in May 2021, then reinstated them in October. The reversal came after a run of incidents in which police were called to Alexandria City High School for fights, and a student was arrested with a handgun at the entrance, forcing the school into lockdown.
The school resource officers, who are not involved in disciplinary matters or patrolling the shopping center, take action only when a student is thought to be engaged in criminal activity, such as threatening peers with a weapon or having drugs or alcohol at school.
The city in April established the School Law Enforcement Partnership Advisory Group to propose changes to the school district’s partnership with police. The group has not held its first meeting, a spokeswoman for the city’s schools said. After Luis Mejia’s death, the school transitioned to mostly virtual learning for a week.
“We must turn away from the ‘easy’ answers, and work collaboratively with parents, educators, human-service agencies, non-profits and police to protect our children and equip them to resolve conflict without violence,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said in a statement posted on Twitter after Luis Mejia’s death.
Mendoza, the victim’s aunt, called on school officials to be more watchful.
“It’s very painful for parents to lose their children,” she said. “It’s not the first time something happens at that school.”