Honor student beaten to death: Can Chicago curb youth violence?

Derrion Albert was apparently caught in a brawl between two rival student groups as he walked home from Fenger High School. It’s not the city’s first such incident: In 2008, more than 30 students were killed.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Nadashia Thomas, a cousin of 16-year-old Derrion Albert, looks at posters of him at Fenger High School in Chicago on Monday. A vigil for Derrion was planned at his school.
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The melee that ensnared Chicago junior Derrion Albert last week wasn't an unusual occurrence in a neighborhood where tensions and gang violence often erupt, say residents.

But the fight left Derrion dead – apparently caught in the brawl between two rival student groups as he walked home from Fenger High School. This has brought renewed focus on a neighborhood and a city where youth violence is a longstanding problem.

"It gets attention when someone dies, but this is every day with us," says Kase Miles, who graduated from Fenger a year ago, pointing to a scar on his cheek that he says he received at school when someone attacked him from behind with brass knuckles. "It's getting worse.... But if he wouldn't have died, [the media] wouldn't be here."

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Keeping students safe – especially as they walk to and from school – has become a challenge for Chicago schools and police. Since the academic year began three weeks ago, five Chicago children have been killed, says Phillip Jackson, founder of the Black Star Project, which is working to strengthen violence-stricken communities in Chicago. In 2008, more than 30 students were killed, according to the Associated Press, citing district figures.

"Schools by themselves can't fix the problem," Mr. Jackson says. "We have to get the community involved. Right now, the problem seems to be here at Fenger. Tomorrow, it will be another school."Instead of the money that has come from Washington to bolster police presence, Jackson would like to see funds for more counselors, after-school programs, and job creation.

The death of Derrion, an honor student who was not apparently involved in any gang, has received particular attention because of an amateur video taken during the fight outside a community center. It shows dozens of students brutally attacking one another with fists and plywood. And it shows several individuals, including one with a two-by-four, kicking and hitting somebody on the ground, apparently Derrion. Aided in part by the video and by surveillance-camera footage, Chicago police charged three teenagers in Derrion's death Monday.

Police have said they plan to bolster security in the Roseland neighborhood, and they lined up outside Fenger in a show of force Monday, the first day the school was open since the beating death. (All Chicago schools were closed Friday for a staff day.) [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized Derrion's death as a shooting.]

Meanwhile, another community group, It Takes a Village, says it has been trying to help residents feel safe for some time. It stations volunteers around the neighborhood to help young people and the elderly get where they need to go without being attacked.

"It's hell for them," said Barbara Solomon, wearing the organization's lime green T-shirt as she waited outside Fenger for a vigil to start Monday. "They don't know whether they'll get home or not."

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