School Climate & Safety

Outcry Against Violence

By Dakarai I. Aarons — October 09, 2009 8 min read
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In the wake of the videotaped beating death of a Chicago high school student, law-enforcement officials and educators called this week for renewed efforts to stem youth violence. But they also acknowledged that money and programs alone won’t solve the problem.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan traveled to Chicago on Oct. 7, at President Barack Obama’s request, to meet with city and school officials and pledge federal help in addressing a continuing wave of killings that claimed the lives of 34 Chicago students last school year.

Mr. Duncan announced a $500,000 grant to help Christian Fenger Academy High School, which the beating victim attended, and its feeder elementary and middle schools get back on their feet. The money is from a federal program called Project SERV, for School Emergency Response to Violence.

“We must engage directly with our children, starting at the youngest age, and must engage with them at every stage of their lives and teach them that violence doesn’t solve anything, and that respect for others is the foundation for a safe and healthy society,” said Mr. Duncan, who served for seven years as the chief executive officer of the Chicago school system.

But Mr. Duncan also found himself on the defensive over assertions that initiatives begun during his tenure to address low-performing schools in the city have contributed to the violence by mixing students from rival neighborhoods.

To help combat the violence, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans this week to increase police presence at schools during dismissal times and at public-transportation stops with heavy student traffic. None of the recent killings happened on school grounds.

Remarks by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan


Underscoring that the youth violence plaguing Chicago is a nationwide challenge, Mr. Holder released a study by the U.S. Department of Justice that found one in 10 children surveyed said they had witnessed a shooting in the past year.

In July, Detroit was rocked when seven students were shot and injured at a bus stop near a high school where they had been taking summer school classes. In Tulsa, Okla., the community is mourning the death of a 16-year-old who was shot Sept. 25, minutes after getting off a school bus. Two other 16-year-olds have been arrested and charged with his murder.

In fact, homicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24 in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. This year, Mr. Duncan said, school districts in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York also have received Project SERV money to “help restore the learning environment.”

Indicators of Trouble

Just weeks before honor-roll student Derrion Albert died on Sept. 24, the Chicago school district announced an effort using $30 million in federal economic-stimulus funding that seeks to identify students most at risk of being killed.

Using data gleaned from 500 shootings over the past few years, the 408,000-student district identified 10,000 students deemed to have the highest risk of becoming victims of violence or of victimizing others. Under the plan, 1,200 of those students will get one-on-one help and be offered jobs. According to news media reports, the indicators used include the number of days students were absent, ethnicity, and whether the students are on track academically.

The plan also calls for increasing security for the city’s 38 most troubled high schools, which district officials have said most of the students involved in the shootings attended. The Chicago school district did not respond to interview requests this week.

Some observers said they were intrigued by what appears to be a novel approach to the youth violence that has plagued the city.

“I like the fact that they want to target those kids with support services,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor of teaching and learning and the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. “Early intervention works a lot better than responding after something occurs.”

Before the 2005-06 school year, an average of 10 to 15 children who were public school students in Chicago were fatally shot each year. That soared to 24 deadly shootings in the 2006-07 school year, 23 deaths and 211 shootings in the 2007-08 school year, and 34 deaths and 290 shootings last school year.

Remarks by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder


“The violence rarely occurs inside the school. The school itself is not generating the violence,” said Harold Pollack, a professor of social-service administration and a co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “We don’t want people to think our schools themselves are dangerous places. The issue is a lot broader than that.”

One of the challenges in addressing the problem, Mr. Pollack said, is a lack of understanding of what works.

“Over decades, we’ve spent billions of dollars. We certainly know a lot, but we know less than we should about what works and how to execute effective programs,” Mr. Pollack said. “Chicago is trying to be more rigorous and evidence-based.”

Reform Efforts at Issue

According to an analysis published this year by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, young black males are most likely to be perpetrators or victims of gun violence in Chicago. That finding mirrors a 2008 study by Northeastern University, which found the number of homicides nationwide involving black male juveniles as victims increased by 31 percent between 2002 and 2007. The number in that demographic group who were perpetrators of homicide grew by 43 percent during that period.

Complicating the problem is the seeming randomness of the acts. The University of Chicago Crime Lab found that one out of every five youths killed by gunfire in Chicago was an innocent bystander and not an intended target.

The study released by the Justice Department this week, the “National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence,” found that more than 60 percent of the nation’s youths reported being a victim of violence or being exposed to it in the past year. Among high-school-age survey participants, one in 10 said they had witnessed a shooting in the past year, one in 75 said they had witnessed a murder, and one in 20 said they had been sexually assaulted. The survey was based on interviews with 4,549 nationally representative children and adolescents age 17 or younger.

“The status quo is not acceptable,” Mr. Holder said in Chicago. “But I want the people of Chicago and the people of this nation to know that we are not going to rest until we’ve done everything that we can to protect the American people, to protect American children, and to stem this tide of violence.”

Some education activists were blaming the district’s Renaissance 2010 program, which has closed dozens of low-performing schools and replaced them with charters and charter-like schools, for the rise in violence. The closures have, at times, placed students from rival neighborhoods in the same school.

Remarks by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daly


In an effort separate from Renaissance 2010, Christian Fenger Academy High School was “reconstituted” with a new staff for this school year, but its student population wasn’t changed. Police said the fight that led to Derrion Albert’s death was the result of an ongoing conflict between two feuding South Side neighborhoods, the Altgeld Gardens public-housing project and an area called the Ville, where Fenger High is located.

Mr. Albert, 16, a junior at Fenger, was attacked when he got caught up in a mob of teenagers near a community center about six blocks from school. Video shows him curled up on the sidewalk as other youths kick him and hit him with splintered railroad ties. So far, four adolescents have been charged with first-degree murder in his death.

“There’s a trail of blood that leads back to the decisions made during the beginning of Renaissance 2010 years ago,” said Tio Hardeman, the director of the Chicago-based CeaseFire Illinois, a community organization that works to defuse neighborhood conflicts. “When you transfer students from one neighborhood to another neighborhood and you don’t look at all the ramifications, you are setting it up to be a disaster in the beginning.”

But Secretary Duncan, who has pointed to Renaissance 2010 as a national model for “turning around” schools, said this week it was “absolutely ridiculous” to blame school closings for the violence. He said Fenger High has just 18 more students from Altgeld Gardens than it did five years ago.

‘On the Ground’

In combating youth violence, some experts say, the best solutions come from local communities.

“The issues are complicated and can’t easily be addressed on a federal level,” said Mr. Noguera of New York University. “You always have to understand what’s going on on the ground in the schools.”

One promising model, he said, is Boston’s Ten-Point Coalition, an effort begun in the early 1990s that brought religious leaders, probation officers, and educators together to combat violence.

In Newark, N.J., Mr. Noguera has helped launch a Bold Approach model that will connect students and their families with social services and mentoring. “You have to keep the kids active and doing something constructive,” he said. “Parents are working, and those kids are vulnerable.”

Mentors and other adults can play a vital role, he said. If the students learn to trust the adults, they will share information about those who are planning and perpetrating such attacks.

Mr. Hardeman of CeaseFire Illinois, who is working to broker a peace treaty between the rival neighborhoods involved in the brawl in which Mr. Albert was killed, said the violence doesn’t always have an explanation.

“The kids admit themselves they don’t know what they were fighting for,” he said. “All they know is they hate the guys over there and those guys hate them. The young guys are frustrated. They feel disenfranchised from overall society, and nobody understands them.”

“Now, we have to go in like a surgeon,” he added, “and help remove the cancer ... of killing from the minds of children.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as Outcry Against Violence


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