Feds pledge help after Chicago beating death of Derrion Albert

Derrion Albert's death focuses federal aid, attention on scourge of youth violence, which has felled Chicago's students for years.

By , Staff writer

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    US Attorney General Eric Holder, center, addresses the media in Chicago, on Wednesday.
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Federal officials and Chicago leaders offered a united front Wednesday – but few new solutions – against the scourge of youth violence, which grabbed America’s attention two weeks ago with the videotaped beating death of high school student Derrion Albert apparently by fellow students.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, appearing with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, promised to focus resources on programs ranging from mentorships and after-school programs to gang intervention and targeted police enforcement. Mr. Holder characterized the video as “a call to action.”

Holder pointed, in particular, to $16 million in grants issued last week – including $500,000 to Chicago – for a program focused on improving school security, and to $24 million the Justice Department has requested in next year’s budget for community-based partnerships that target youth crime.

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He also cited a Justice Department report released Wednesday showing that children's exposure to violence is pervasive: More than 60 percent of those surveyed were exposed to violence in the past year, either directly or indirectly. Nearly half were assaulted at least once in the past year, 10 percent were injured in an assault, and 1 in 4 was a victim of robbery or vandalism, the study found.

“There are no easy, there are no quick fixes,” said Holder, who promised to tackle the problem with a combination of prevention, intervention, and targeted enforcement, and to try to fund coordinated approaches that rely on the best research.

Holder, Mr. Duncan, and Mayor Daley spent the morning meeting with students from Fenger High School, which Derrion was attending at the time of his death. The biggest request from students was for more mentors, they said.

They also cited the need for more after-school and weekend programs, conversations that involve students’ families, and better early childhood education. Duncan also announced the grant of $500,000 to Fenger and the schools that feed into it.

Still, specific new proposals were few, and the three officials tried to deflect questions away from how much money would be directed at violence prevention.

“Money alone will never solve this problem,” said Duncan. “It’s much deeper than that. It’s about values and about who we are as a society. And it’s about taking responsibility for our young people to teach them what they need to know to live side by side and deal with their differences without anger and without violence.”

Attention for now is focused on Chicago, where Derrion was beaten to death and where nearly 400 students were shot between September 2008 and September 2009. But Duncan cited student deaths in Tulsa, Okla., Philadelphia, Seattle, and New Orleans in recent weeks, emphasizing that the problem of youth violence is national.

The issue is not new in Chicago, where student shootings have been an unhappy fact of life for years and where efforts to address youth violence have done little to prevent new deaths. This time, Duncan said, he hopes the brutality of the killing and its wide dissemination via video will give new impetus to leaders.

“It’s heartbreaking that it takes capturing a death on video to wake the country,” he says, noting that when he was superintendent of schools in Chicago he dealt with kids getting shot every day and never saw a crowd like the one gathered at City Hall on Wednesday.

“We can use this moment to go forward together,” he said. “It’s a line in the sand, and we have to get dramatically better.”

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