If you want to have your heart broken, spend the morning in Judge Jacqueline Herr Valdes’ courtroom.

The 386th Judicial District Court of Texas is one of three courts in Bexar County where juvenile offenders — youth under age 18 — are called to account for a range of misdemeanor and felony crimes.

On a recent morning, young men — mere boys, really — trudged up to Valdes’ bench with their wrists in handcuffs, ankle chains clinking, clad in detention center scrubs. They were wiry and slight, upper lips bearing the first hint of a mustache. One was crying. Later, a young woman — a girl, actually — stood shyly in front of the judge, GPS tracking monitor on her ankle, when she should have been giggling in study hall or planning what to wear to a school dance.

Throughout the morning, a handful of lawyers and probation officers bustled in front of the judge’s bench, with stacks of manila folders that collectively held each child’s future.

It’s a sad parade anytime, but Valdes has noticed an even more troubling trend: Until recent years, when first-time offenders came before her, it would typically be for lower-level crimes like shoplifting or criminal mischief. Now, an increasing number of children and teens are landing in her court for the first time facing more serious charges that nearly all involve one thing: guns.

“There’s a lot of juvenile access to weapons in our community, which is very concerning to me and to everybody,” said Valdes, who has worked in juvenile justice for a decade, both as a judge and as an assistant district attorney.

The kids may be charged with a range of crimes — aggravated assault or burglary, a drug offense, unauthorized use of a vehicle, whatever — but the presence of firearms is adding a dangerous new dimension.

Valdes said she’s not sure where all the guns are coming from, but her hunch is it’s less likely from parents’ homes and more likely from youth stealing them out of vehicles (both locked and unlocked) or getting them through social media, where gangs, drugs and gun culture have become glamorized to an incredibly toxic extent. 

“There’s a lot of flexing going on, a lot of negotiating among youth, such as, ‘Steal a car and bring it to me and I’ll give you a gun,”’ Valdes said.

As a judge, Valdes steers clear of addressing political issues like gun control. But it seems stunningly obvious to me that our gun-saturated culture plays an outsized role in this trend, especially in Texas, where gun owners can now carry firearms in public without a permit.

“Without having to go through any training to get a license, I don’t think many adults appreciate the gravity of keeping guns safely locked away, and not in their cars,” Valdes observed.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, when gun sales increased nationally, our society was awash in weapons — Americans owned 393 million firearms in 2017, the equivalent of more than one gun per person.

The proliferation of guns has not only exacerbated juveniles’ access to guns and the corresponding increase in the severity of their crimes; it’s killing our youth. Last April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that found firearms had surpassed car accidents as the No. 1 killer of children and teens nationally in 2020 — including in Texas.

I try to avoid such clichés as “a perfect storm,” but that’s truly what we have when it comes to youth and guns — take a demographic already prone to impulsive and risky behavior (especially boys), combine it with a ginned-up cultural and social media environment that glamorizes gangs and guns, then layer on top easy access to firearms.

Is it really any surprise what Valdes is seeing in her court? 

She can’t pinpoint when the trend started happening, she said. Juvenile violent felony referrals hit a peak of 575 in 2019, then dipped down during the pandemic. But the numbers are inching up again, and guns are coming along for the ride.

Here’s a sample in just one category: In 2016, three youths were charged with murder/manslaughter in Bexar County. In 2021, the number was 12.

“Before, if there was a youth involved in a [gun-related] murder or assault or aggravated robbery, everyone would be aware of it,” from police to the district attorney’s office, Valdes said. “Now, there’s so much of it going on, it’s hard to keep track. We’re getting these referrals on a weekly basis.”

Associate Judge William “Cruz” Shaw, who also oversees a juvenile court, said he “absolutely” is seeing the same trend in his docket — and added that more and more often “guns are being found in schools.”

Just days before I visited Valdes’ court, two teens — ages 15 and 18 — were involved in a shooting near Judson High School, which allegedly began with a fistfight and ended with guns being drawn.

Valdes said she doesn’t know if the youth coming into her court for the first time on weapons-involved charges have never committed a crime before or simply haven’t been caught.

Many youths who land in juvenile court suffer the simple misfortune of being born in the wrong zip code, which — as the cliché goes — can determine a child’s fate more forcefully than their DNA can. Many have experienced trauma — poverty, abuse, neglect, family dysfunction — that Valdes can only imagine, she said, and no doubt all that plays a role in what she’s seeing. 

So too, she believes, does the pandemic: Many kids who come before her never returned to school and the “prosocial” environment it affords. Some have been out of school for three years. 

Strides have been made in Bexar County to reach these kids. A host of specialty courts seek to help youth who’ve been sex-trafficked, have mental health issues or are reentering society after being in a residential treatment facility.

Other efforts include Stand Up SA, a Metro Health program that seeks to reduce gun and gang violence among youth by intervening in the cycle of violence on the street level and offering kids various services. 

Program director Derek Taylor said youth use of firearms has indeed grown precipitously in San Antonio in the last couple of years, with disastrous consequences. 

“Guns have gotten more accessible and cheaper, and what happens is kids feel like everyone else is carrying them, so they don’t want to get caught without one,” Taylor said. “It’s gotten to the point where they’re not going to fight, they’re going to settle [issues] right off with a gun. It’s the easiest thing to do and they feel it gives them street credibility.”

Valdes herself has an arsenal of strategies she deploys to steer youth back on the right path. On a recent morning, she recited them almost like boilerplate to each child who stood before her: Counseling. Curfew. Community service. Drug testing.

She tries to use the small window of opportunity she has with each young offender to drive home the seriousness of their situation.

On the day I visited, Valdes addressed one young woman who had shot and wounded another teen, and was continuing to post on social media despite being instructed not to as part of her probation.

“This is completely unacceptable,” Valdes said, fixing her with a stern stare. “I want you to be at home, school, work or community service, and that’s it. We’re going to be watching you, your social media accounts. I’m not going to forget we had this conversation.”

If Valdes had a magic wand, she’d find out “what drives every single child and then provide that for them.” 

She’d institute a program similar to one former District Attorney Susan Reed ran years ago, which banned gang members from congregating in certain areas of town, only this one would relate to gun access. She’d identify the gang “ringleaders” and work intensely with them.

What Valdes can’t do from her bench is address the larger societal issues that create the flow of disaffected, gun-toting youth who come before her, their fates already seemingly fixed: Income inequality. Structural racism. Social injustice. Parents who have to work multiple jobs and can’t adequately supervise their children, or who struggle with their own drug and alcohol or mental health issues. Kids raised by single parents — usually mothers — or grandparents, who face daunting challenges.

I’d add one more: Adults who are so enamored of their Second Amendment rights that they can’t see the carnage it’s causing among our children. 

Here’s another cliché, one that is also overused but apt: Why do we keep trying to fish children out of the river of trouble downstream, when the roots start so much farther upstream? Why don’t we catch them before they drown?

Valdes is speaking out now to flash warning signals, ones we ignore at our peril.

“We need to agree it’s not OK for children to have access to weapons,” she said. “We should all be upset about what’s going on, and we need as a community and society to address it.”

If not, more and more hearts will surely be broken.

Melissa Fletcher Stolje, columnist for the San Antonio Report, on Friday.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...