In Violent Chicago, 'It's Tough to Be a Kid'

By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

CHICAGO, Oct. 6 -- Heading home from school, Leon Porch knows not to dawdle and, if trouble breaks out, never to choose sides.

"The violence is bad. You get jumped going to the store," said Porch, 17, standing near the spot where a 16-year-old schoolmate was beaten to death last month. "It seems like all the good kids are dying first, and the bad ones keep doing what they're doing. I'm a good kid, but I'm trying to be half good and half dumb so at least I have a 50-50 chance."

These are perilous times for teenagers in Chicago, where more than 40 children have been killed in violent incidents since Jan. 1. The most recent was Derrion Albert, whose Sept. 24 beating death prompted President Obama to dispatch Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Chicago.

The two Cabinet officers will hold meetings here Wednesday with city officials, community leaders and "families most affected by the horrific recent violence," according to a White House spokesman. The topic will be youth violence, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, calling Albert's killing a matter "of great concern to the president, as somebody who . . . lives in Chicago."

Obama discussed the violence with advisers in an Oval Office meeting one morning last week, said Gibbs, who told reporters that "the video that we have seen on television is among the most shocking that you can ever see."

Albert was heading for a bus stop near Christian Fenger Academy High School when a melee broke out between feuding factions. In chaos captured in a cellphone video, one teenager swung a plank, knocking Albert down. Others hit him as he struggled to get away. Four youths stand charged with murder.

With outrage over the incident growing, Chicago police commanders and school leaders say they are struggling to stem a crisis that few profess to understand. Despite changes in policing and profusions of civic programs, the violence has increased.

"It's going to take a lot more than policies and police," said Miesha Houston, 28, who grew up near Fenger. "It's the poverty, drugs, rap music, the media. There are a lot of single-parent homes and parents on drugs, so the kids don't want to be home. And when they go outside, there's trouble."

Chicago Public Schools officials say 298 students enrolled in the nation's third-largest school system have been shot since September 2008. Those figures do not include youths who dropped out or were enrolled elsewhere.

After one bad stretch last winter, Police Superintendent Jody Weis increased curfew enforcement and assigned another 50 officers to the city's 100-strong Mobile Strike Force, which focuses on gangs and guns. School system chief executive Ron Huberman announced a program called Safe Passage to provide security and bus rides to students passing through gang territory.

But the challenges facing countless Chicago schoolchildren -- 84 percent of the system's more than 400,000 students come from impoverished homes, according to school officials -- stretch beyond what policing can solve. Weis calls it a failure of society, a view widely shared.

"It's the parents. There's really not much the government can do. You can't legislate a good heart," said Jessie Smith, 73, a retired heating and air-conditioning technician who lives near Fenger.

The Rev. Robin Hood said Chicago police "can't do more than what they've been doing." He worked for several years with CeaseFire, a group that focuses on street-level outreach, often using former gang members "who have credibility and notoriety and who don't mind standing there when the guns are coming up."

Huberman, a former police officer and chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), recently designed a program to identify the schoolchildren most likely to be shot. The project, underwritten with millions in federal stimulus dollars, will assign mentors, offer family support and provide help with school and work. He found that schools with strong counselors and better safety training had fewer expulsions and less violence.

When youth violence was at its peak 15 years ago, 156 children under 17 were slain, said Melissa Sickmund, a senior researcher at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a Pittsburgh nonprofit group. She said the experience of other cities has been similar.

"To put it in perspective, when we look at the data for Chicago, it's not worse than it's ever been," Sickmund said, "but it is scary and depressing for certain communities. It's tough to be a kid in Chicago."

Bullets most often kill young people here, and Chicago has had limited success at curbing gun use. The U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned Washington's gun ban as a violation of the Second Amendment, agreed last week to hear a challenge to Chicago's similar rules, passed in 1982.

After the court's ruling on the District gun laws last year, Daley said that those who think guns are the answer "are greatly mistaken," adding: "Then why don't we do away with the court system and go back to the Old West?" Weis, a former FBI agent, said a ruling against the city's gun ban would "no doubt" make policing harder.

"We need to get rid of guns in the community," said a woman handing out religious pamphlets near Fender. The woman, who would not give her name, said she had lost a son to gun violence. "They need to find out who the children's friends are, keep them away from the gangs, keep them busy so they don't have time for ganging up."

Obama and Duncan, who both have strong ties to the South Side, advocate extending the school year.

The Fenger students accused of killing Albert rode buses from Altgeld Gardens, the housing project where Obama spent three years as a community organizer. They were feuding with fellow students from a neighborhood known as the Ville.

If conditions are going to improve, Porch said, adults need to become involved.

"They need to pay more attention to these kids," Porch said. "They don't know what's going on with kids after school."

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