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508 Chicago Kids Shot in Just 16 Months

Children cannot focus on learning when they are worried about living.

Editorial from Chicago SunTimes

March 9, 2009

In this school year alone, 25 Chicago Public Schools children have been murdered. As shocking as that is, that number doesn't begin to tell the real story of how deeply violence is a part of the everyday life of Chicago's children.

Try this number out for size: A total of 508 Chicago school kids were shot from September 2007 through December 2008, according to data compiled by the school system and released to the Chicago Sun-Times.

That's almost 32 children shot each month. Most of these kids, thankfully, did not die. But the damage is tremendous nonetheless.

There is the physical damage, which is awful enough. But the psychological damage can last much longer -- both for the victim and their classmates. Many kids in the most violent neighborhoods of Chicago are paralyzed by fear, and it's hard to blame them.

They are thinking rationally.

In 130 schools, at least one student has been shot since September 2007. In 15 schools, at least 10 students have been shot. In 12 other schools, at least 5 students have been shot.

School officials compiled this data to look for patterns that might help them get a handle on the problem. It was collected under former schools CEO Arne Duncan. New schools CEO Ron Huberman is reviewing and verifying the data.

None of these children were shot in school, it's important to note. In fact, Bryan Samuels, the top CPS official who oversaw the data analysis, found the shootings were typically much closer to the victim's home than to his or her school. The median distance from the shooting to the victim's home was 0.4 miles, while the median distance to the victim's school was 1.2 miles.

CPS also found that 70 percent of the shootings took place between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. -- outside the hours of the school day and after-school programs. But that doesn't mean schools are not profoundly hard hit. Our public schools can -- and must -- soften the blow of such violence and do more to prevent it.

This editorial page believes one answer lies in compelling schools to adopt a radical new approach to teaching -- one that addresses the social and emotional needs of students. In too many Chicago schools, traumatized kids arrive for class each day filled with anger and despair. Inevitably, they disrupt classrooms, slow learning to a crawl and at times become violent themselves.

Most schools have little to offer these kids except overburdened social workers and counselors. Instead, as this page has pushed for months now, CPS should implement citywide a well-established, evidence-based approach now being rolled out in earnest in a handful of schools. The model program teaches basic skills that many kids don't get at home, such as how to get along and how to empathize -- skills that research shows improve test scores and behavior. The program provides more intensive counseling to needier kids.

Duncan, before moving on to Washington to head the U.S. Department of Education, supported phasing in all or parts of the model into all Chicago public schools by 2011. His successor, Huberman, who has a social work degree, says he is studying the model. We urge Huberman to continue this vital work after a thorough review of its progress this year.

An alternative plan has been proposed by state Rep. Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat and former teacher and administrator. A bill she introduced last month would require schools in violence-prone areas to hire a full-time social worker (most have only part-time help). And, in response to a Sun-Times report last year documenting pervasive fear among kids in violent areas and a lack of opportunities for them to blow off steam, Davis would require struggling schools to offer 10 to 15 minutes of physical activity a day and after-school programming.

The concept is good, but we fear the bill is not sweeping enough and, without a clear funding source, could simply be another unfunded, burdensome mandate. In general, Huberman tells us, he is committed to finding a comprehensive way to address students' social and emotional needs -- one of several areas he hopes to tackle as part of a larger response to violence.

He is identifying schools that have what he calls a "culture of calm" (respect between adults and kids, no kids hanging out in the hallways) and trying to export that culture to schools that clearly could use it.

The new schools CEO also wants to make sure kids get to school safely. With 508 shootings in 16 months, kids on many blocks have every reason to fear walking to school. Those CPS shooting statistics, by the way, do not even include other school-age kids who have been shot. Adding those kids would double CPS' 508 shootings.

Huberman, well-known for his love of data, is analyzing shooting patterns, transportation routes, gang turf boundaries and school attendance boundaries. That data will be used to devise safer routes to school for kids in risky areas, with a team at each school monitoring and updating the routes. A plan that wraps all of these elements together will be announced in May, he said.

Since September, 25 Chicago Public Schools kids have been murdered. That's one shy of the total for the entire 2007-2008 school year. In December 2008, 34 students were shot. In December 2007, there was just one shooting.

If this isn't a crisis, what is?

Is this a crisis in other cities? What are people willing to do to make programs available in high poverty neighborhoods which can help reverse these trends?

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