COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH)–Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, more children have become victims of gun violence.

According to data tracked by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive, 77 Ohioans under age 18 were shot to death between January 2019 and January 2020. Between February 2020 and February 2021, 132 children in Ohio were killed by bullets.

Those with firsthand knowledge of this tragic trend tell NBC4 Investigates that the timing of the surge in youth violence is no coincidence.

Latonya Nichols of Columbus described her son, Nofeir Cannon, as a “good kid.” She said he loved sports and aspired to be a fashion designer. Nichols said she never had any discipline issues with her 15-year-old son until COVID-19 shuttered schools and recreation centers in March 2020.

“He didn’t like staying in the house. He was an outdoor person. He wanted to just go outside, hang out with his friends and be amongst kids his age,” Nichols said. “He was hanging out with friends that I – I didn’t like.”

On October 8, 2020, Cannon told his mother he’d be late for curfew. He never made it home.

“Nineteen bullets rung out. One hit my baby in the back of the head. He was gone in seconds,” Nichols said.

According to Nichols, Nofeir and his friends were stealing a car when they were shot at. Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies identified the suspected gunman as an 18-year-old relative of the car’s owner.

Her life transformed by grief, Nichols displays photos of Nofeir in her home and wears pieces of his hair in hers.

“I wish I would have been more – ‘No, you can’t go. No, you have to stay. No, you don’t need to hang out with your friends,’” Nichols said.

“Anything where you see a child get hurt, it takes a little bit of your heart away each time,” said Robert Strausbaugh, Commander of the Major Crimes Bureau for the Columbus Division of Police.

He said the past year has brought tragedy for an increasing number of families.

“Correlation can be kind of seen, in that when like the schools are closed down, the kids’ structure is a little bit more loose,” Strausbaugh said, “they’re able to be out – a little bit more freedom – that can be correlated with the pandemic.”

Young people are not just becoming victims in increasing numbers. They’re also becoming suspects. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juvenile crime rates had sunk to generational lows through 2019.

“Now we’re starting to see a creep back up,” Strausbaugh said.

Strausbaugh hopes the return of in-person learning, rec centers and afterschool activities can reverse the trend by engaging kids in a safe way.

Nichols agrees, but says opening rec centers is not enough to help the families that struggle the most.

“Now at every rec center, you have to pay. A lot of parents can’t afford to pay for two and three children to do these activities,” Nichols said. “I just want changes made. Not just for my son, but for every kid that has lost their life – even to prevent it from happening.”

In an effort to curb juvenile crime, the City of Columbus has invested $1.5 million in new summer youth programs and has expanded capacity for existing youth engagement programs.

In the meantime, Strausbaugh urges parents and his fellow law enforcement officers to have more open, honest and respectful conversations with children.

“You have to know what your kids are doing,” Strausbaugh said. “You have to know where your kids are.”

Ben Orner contributed to this story.