By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
CHICAGO -- Chavez Clarke, 18, had spent this past Saturday taking catch-up classes so he could graduate on time. As he left a South Side high school that afternoon, he was fatally shot, in broad daylight and in plain view of other students. His death marked a grim end to a week when police and school officials had stepped up their efforts to combat a spike in killings of public school students.
The day before, an eighth-grader at a North Side school was shot and killed.
In all, 20 Chicago public school students have been fatally shot so far this school year -- seven in March alone -- compared with 24 the year before, said spokesman Mike Vaughn. Including those who died in non-gun violence, 22 students have been killed this year, and 30 last school year. School officials could not provide precise figures, but said that killings had increased markedly over past years.
On Tuesday, hundreds of Chicago public school students from four high schools gathered downtown to protest the violence and to call for more gun-control measures, with the school district sanctioning their absences and supplying buses, the Associated Press reported. Twenty empty school desks, each representing a fallen student, were set up in front of the James R. Thompson Center, which houses state offices.
A well-known anti-violence crusader on the South Side, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, had also planned a community rally Tuesday, and said St. Sabina Catholic Church will offer rewards for information about the killings.
In response to the increased violence, Chicago police have been increasing their presence at schools and have begun monitoring live pictures from 4,500 school security cameras.
When students returned from spring break on the day after Easter to Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory Common School on the West Side, they were met by a heavy police presence and parent escorts. Since the March 7 gang-related killing of Ruben Ivy, 18, a block from the school, many students had stayed home, fearing retaliatory violence. Ivy was allegedly shot by a 15-year-old resident of a nearby public housing development, where about 120 Crane students live.
"It seems a lot safer now," Devinity Reynolds, 16, said Friday morning, as at least eight patrol cars and a paddy wagon lingered around the school. "I hope they do this for the rest of the school year." Officers stood on the sidewalk as parents in fluorescent yellow city-issued vests, emblazoned with the words "walking school bus," met students at bus stops near the school and escorted them inside.
In February, Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed stepped-up state and federal anti-gun legislation and promoted the city's program to pay people to turn in illegal firearms, which collected more than 6,000 weapons last year. The mayor also moved up the city's curfew for those younger than 18 by half an hour (to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m. on other days), and city officials held a summit on teen violence March 22.
But police spokeswoman Monique Bond and school officials say recent media attention and public outrage over the killings are calling attention to a chronic problem that is not necessarily worse than usual.
"While one shooting is always too many, the aggravated batteries and gang shootings involving juveniles are actually down this year, compared to years past," Bond said. "There are just too many guns out there."
Despite the killings of Ivy and Clarke, school spokesman Vaughn said few shootings have taken place near school grounds during school hours.
"It's very rare weapons are found in schools, and we've had declining numbers of fights," he said. "Students will say the one place they feel safe is school."
But Gary Slutkin, executive director of the anti-violence group CeaseFire, challenged that assertion.
"Violence in the schools is ongoing," Slutkin said. "It's not just the deaths. It's the kids beaten until they have seizures. It's the fights on buses with bats and knives. These kids have grown up around violence. By age 20, 40 to 70 percent of kids have personally witnessed a shooting."
CeaseFire places mediators known as "interrupters" directly in schools and violence-plagued neighborhoods to try to defuse gang and personal conflicts before they become violent. The program lost $6.25 million in state funding last year and cut its staff as a result.
"We're fire-fighting, pulling our staff from place to place, instead of pushing things down in schools and keeping them down," Slutkin said. "Instead of having a handle on Crane, we had to come to Crane after the fact."