School Climate & Safety Opinion

A Closer Look at Violence in Chicago

By Eduwonkette — April 24, 2008 3 min read
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Last weekend, 36 people were shot in Chicago, and 13 of the victims were Chicago Public Schools students. This school year alone, more than 20 CPS students have been fatally shot. Looking towards the future, Mayor Daley dispensed this soothing advice to parents: “What we’re asking parents to do is know where your children are. It’s going to be a long summer, and parents better capture this responsibility.”

What do trends in weapon-carrying and fighting among teenagers in Chicago look like? I pulled data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which surveys American high school students every 2 years and includes a representative sample of Chicago students. What emerges is a mixture of good and bad news - the long-term trends are generally positive, but the overall levels of violence are astoundingly high.

The first graph below shows the percentage of students carrying a weapon to school in the last thirty days, as well as the percentage of students carrying a weapon overall, from 1991-2005 (the in-school numbers aren’t available until 1993). The percentage of students who carried a weapon in the last 30 days declined substantially from 1991-2005: 44% of boys and 23% of girls had done so in 1991, but these numbers fell to 22% for boys and 16% for girls by 2005. Despite this decline, that’s a lot of kids carrying weapons. Perhaps more positively, in 2005, only 5% of students had carried a weapon to school in the past 30 days. (It feels so wrong to say only when 1 in 20 students is carrying a weapon.)

Though most weapon carrying is happening outside of school, tightening up school security by adding security cameras and more officers appears to be a key response to recent shootings in Chicago. Anti-violence groups contend that violence in schools remains a major problem, even though none of the recent shootings have occurred in schools. Gary Slutkin, the executive director of a group called Cease Fire, said in the Post article linked above, “Violence in the schools is ongoing,” Slutkin said. “It’s not just the deaths. It’s the kids beaten until they have seizures. It’s the fights on buses with bats and knives.

The next graph, which displays the percentage of students in physical fights in school and overall in the past 12 months, suggests that Slutkin has a good point. The percentage of students who fought in school has remained stable for boys and inched up slightly for girls; in 2005, 18% of girls and 22% of boys fought in school in the last year. But if we consider fights outside of school as well, more than 1 in 3 Chicago girls (39%) and almost 1 in 2 Chicago boys (47%) fought in the last year.

So do Chicago students feel safe? Fewer students report that they stayed home from school because they felt unsafe in school or on their way to or from school in 2005 - but 1 in 10 students still reported staying home for safety reasons.

What long-term effects can we expect from this wave of violence in Chicago? This Science paper, “Firearm Violence Exposure and Serious Violent Behavior,” provides some insight. The authors analyzed data from Chicago, and argued that there is a causal relationship between exposure to firearm violence and subsequent perpetration of serious violence. The effects were quite large - “exposure to firearm violence approximately doubles the probability that an adolescent will perpetrate serious violence over the subsequent 2 years.”

Education bloggers (present company included) spill a lot of ink over the smallest details of accountability plans, but it’s important to remember that this is the context in which our schools are working. Community problems inevitably seep into schools, and the interventions that we spend the most time talking about do little to help kids manage the emotional toll of these events.

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