To keep kids safe, Chicagoans join the walk to school

A spate of violence engulfing students has galvanized the city.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    School escort: In the wake of a March shooting, students from a public housing project on Chicago’s West Side now have a parent (second from left) accompany them to and from the Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory Common School.
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Every weekday morning, parents and volunteers, wearing bright yellow shirts and neon jerseys, join with police to accompany up to two dozen students from ABLA Homes, a Chicago public housing project, to the Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory Common School two miles away. In the afternoon, they make the return trip, including the ride on the city bus.

The reason? In March, a shooting near the school left a student dead and others fearing retaliation. "You got to do what you can to stop the violence," says Deverra Beverly, president of ABLA's advisory council and an activist who helped conceive of the escort, dubbed Operation Safe Passage.

The effort from this West Side Chicago neighborhood is one of the most organized community responses to a spate of violence that has engulfed schoolchildren and galvanized the city. Since the start of the school year, 24 public school students in Chicago have been killed – a classroom's worth of kids, as many local editorials have noted; 21 of them were shooting victims. While the numbers don't represent a big rise from the past few years, the violence is worse than a decade ago and grabbed the city's attention.

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At one point, the Chicago Sun-Times printed its front page in reverse, including the newspaper's name – an attention-grabbing tactic to, it said, "say to our fellow Chicagoans ... that turning our back on the violence killing our young people will not make it disappear."

Rallies have been held downtown, ministers have taken up the cause, and Mayor Richard Daley has pushed gun-control legislation, summer jobs, and new research on preventing youth violence.

"We have to start talking about this as a crisis or people will shrug it off and take it as an accepted part of growing up in certain neighborhoods," says Michael Vaughn, a spokesman for the Chicago Public Schools. Even though most of the violence happens off school grounds, says Mr. Vaughn, it has an enormous effect on students' education and ability to focus on learning. "We want to raise awareness of the fact that our students have to deal with guns and gang violence far too much in their lives."

The victims this year have included a 10-year-old who wanted to a preacher, older teenagers, innocent bystanders, and gang members. On one particularly violent weekend this spring, seven public school students were shot, two of them fatally.

The shooting at Crane occurred in early March, just minutes after school let out and less than a block from the school. Ruben Ivy, a junior, was shot and killed – allegedly by a student from ABLA, which is being transformed from a public housing project into a mixed-income community. Within minutes of the shooting, two other Crane students were brutally attacked, one hit in the head with a golf club and another beaten so badly he suffered a seizure.

Part of the issue at Crane is the population of students from multiple neighborhoods and rival gang areas. The day of the shooting, a fight had apparently broken out in the morning at school, and the violence that followed the closing bell may simply have been an escalation of tensions that were simmering all day.

"Something has changed in the way teenagers are resolving conflict," says Monique Bond, a spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department, adding that cities around the country are taking note of the phenomenon. "It used to be fistfights and arguments, but conflict resolution with this generation is completely different."

That attitude, in which an argument over a hat or an insult can quickly escalate to guns and killings, is at the heart of the issue, say some experts, and any solutions need to try to address it.

"If you haven't taken a gun out of somebody's hand, if you don't have a relationship with them, then you can't parachute in to tell them to put that gun down," says Tio Hardiman, the director of mediation services for CeaseFire, a Chicago gang-intervention organization. Mr. Hardiman recently ran a conflict-management session at Crane in which he talked with key students from ABLA and rival neighborhoods. They used role-play and other techniques to get at other ways students can respond to perceived slights and smaller arguments so that, "if someone bumps you, you don't have to respond with escalation," says Hardiman.

He spoke with the students about identifying "thinkers" in each crowd so that, if another incident happens, they can reach out to CeaseFire's staff for help in stopping it before it gets out of hand.

For now, the city and police are taking other steps to try and both prevent youth violence and to be there to respond when it occurs. The city is increasing its summer jobs and recreational and educational programs to serve 280,000 students this summer in an effort to keep them occupied and off the streets. The police department has moved its youth curfew earlier, to 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends, and is stepping up enforcement. Police have targeted some of the most troubled schools and make sure students are present at arrival and dismissal.

At Crane, Ms. Beverly says the escort will continue at least through the end of the school year, even though fears of retaliation for the March shooting have died down.

"You have to always think about everything, you don't know what could happen, in school or outside school," says Daquator Lane, a Crane senior who plans to go to college next year to study criminal justice. "We don't know if we're safe or not, but you just have to keep going to school like normal."

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