TOPICS > Politics

Student’s Death Points to Upsurge in Gang Violence in Chicago

October 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with a Chicago Sun-Times reporter about the recent murder of a high school student in Chicago's south side and the increase in gang violence throughout the Windy City.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, youth violence in Chicago, a story that has drawn national attention. Jeffrey Brown begins with some background.

JEFFREY BROWN: This grainy cell phone video, which was posted on the Internet, shows the chaotic scene just before a Chicago high school student was beaten to death two weeks ago.

Sixteen-year-old Derrion Albert was pummeled with a wooden plank and then repeatedly kicked in the head a few blocks from his school. A football player and honor student at Christian Fenger Academy High School on the city’s South Side, Albert walked into the middle of a brawl between rival gangs. Albert himself was not a gang member. Police have arrested four teens in his killing.

Albert was described as a standout student.

BISHOP GRANT, Greater Mount Hebron Baptist Church: People have embraced Derrion as if he was their grandson or their nephew or their son, because this was a good kid on his way to greatness. And this level of tragedy, the brutality that this young man suffered in broad daylight has caused all of us to take a step back and ask ourselves, what can all of us do?

JEFFREY BROWN: Family and residents grieved over the murder, and they also expressed anger over the latest death of a student. Violence among students has spiked since 2006; 67 students have been killed since the beginning of the 2007 school year; nearly 300 have been shot and wounded during that same time.

Today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Chicago to meet with city leaders, including Mayor Richard Daley.

ERIC HOLDER: There are no easy, there are no quick, fixes. This will not happen overnight. Our approach will need to involve not just law enforcement, but also faith-based organizations, the business community, and social service groups. Every citizen has to be a part of the solution. We will need a combination of prevention, intervention and targeted enforcement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Duncan, who served as Chicago’s school superintendent until he joined President Obama’s cabinet, said he hoped today’s meeting was the beginning of a broader effort to attack the problem.

ARNE DUNCAN: Something about seeing something on video seems to wake up this country. And we should use this moment or whatever, we should use this moment to go forward together, that this is a fork in the road, this is a line in the sand, and we have to get dramatically better.

And it’s all of us stepping up. Nobody gets a pass. Chicago is not unique. Four students have been shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, already this year. Philadelphia, Seattle, Miami, New Orleans. And many rural communities have also lost school children to violence in recent weeks.

Call for federal government to aid

Richard Daley
Mayor of Chicago
Let us remember: Much of the violence against Chicago's young people involve gang violence, unfortunately. We need the help of the federal government to help break up the gangs in our city,

JEFFREY BROWN: Some parents and activists say the rise in violence has happened since Duncan implemented a plan to close dozens of Chicago schools and reassign students to schools in other neighborhoods. But Duncan said the violence was not connected, and Mayor Daley agreed.

RICHARD DALEY, Mayor of Chicago: Let us remember: Much of the violence against Chicago's young people involve gang violence, unfortunately. We need the help of the federal government to help break up the gangs in our city, which does not end at a city limit, and the terror that may bring to communities, not only a city, but throughout the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Parents are asking other parents and children to help. This mother lost her son in 2007.

ANNETTE HOLT: They know what's going on in these schools. They know what's going on in these streets. Had it not been for this video camera, these young people would not have been caught.

JEFFREY BROWN: Federal officials said today they were giving the city a $500,000 grant for school counselors and other programs. The city is also using federal stimulus money for new programs to stem the violence.

And for more on this story, we turn to Carol Marin, contributor to WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" program. She's also a political columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Carol, this latest killing clearly grabbed national attention. What did it do there? What kind of impact did it have?

CAROL MARIN, WTTW Chicago: Well, it was the shot heard around the world. It was seen globally. And as a result, the echoes of it are louder than perhaps the other shootings, the other murders, the other stabbings that are just as painful, but the world didn't see.

A spike in violence

Carol Marin
There are a lot of people getting shot and killed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a clear sense there that things are getting worse, or is it the focus on young students?

CAROL MARIN: There is a sense that it's getting worse, but it's also that focus that you talk about. It was a very careful calculation by the Chicago public schools to get people to look at the killings in these neighborhoods, to start counting the number of Chicago public school students as distinct from non-students or adults. And so, in some way, it focuses the intention on one particular demographic, but there are a lot of people getting shot and killed.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what was today's meeting intended to do? And can you tell yet what came out of it?

CAROL MARIN: I think today's meeting was intended to make it very clear to the people in Chicago that the president is watching, that this was taken seriously. It was an attempt to address worldwide the fact that we're not going to accept this kind of violence, especially since this comes basically in the South Side of Chicago, where the president lives and worked as an organizer, and where Arne Duncan, the new head of education in the United States, comes from.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain to us how it would work in Chicago. Who are the main players attacking a problem like this? And to what extent are they working together or are there tensions there?

CAROL MARIN: There are tensions, but the fact is, the same players are working on it who have always worked on it. That's the schools; that's the police; that's the system of churches and community groups that have been concerned all the while.

The question for everyone right now is that, is this a new, genuinely innovative way to take on the problem? Or is it the same scramble that we've undertaken in years past?

Using stimulus money for protection

Carol Marin
It's controversial, because there are 410,000 kids in Chicago public schools, so a lot of resources on a very small number.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us about what things are being attempted. I was reading the new superintendent there, Ron Huberman, he's developed a new plan that, in fact, uses federal stimulus money, I understand.

CAROL MARIN: Sixty million dollars over two years. And what he did was a comprehensive analysis of 500 kids who had been shot, trying to figure out who are they, where they live, when were they shot, why were they shot? And they came up with certain characteristics.

They're male. They're often truant. They often come from families that are in terrible shape, one or both parents missing in action. They're kids who have acted up. These are the kids who are likely either to get in trouble or to be at the other end of a gun or a plywood plank.

And so, in doing that assessment -- and they were shot basically or clubbed to death within a two-hour window late at night or early in the morning right before school. And so it's an attempt to figure out by those metrics how you can stop the violence by investing in 10,000 kids, mentoring them, watching them, trying to help them get employment. It's controversial, because there are 410,000 kids in Chicago public schools, so a lot of resources on a very small number.

JEFFREY BROWN: So in the end, this could change the kind of response away from police action? I mean, policing must still be a big part of this, but this is aimed at more like community services and, as you say, mentoring programs.

CAROL MARIN: Exactly. I mean, it's trying to attack it from a variety of avenues. At the same time, the recession is a reality in these very poor neighborhoods that have just gotten a lot poorer. The war on drugs is not an insignificant part of any discussion about what we're doing in terms of violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Carol, what about the questions that some raised about Arne Duncan's action when he was superintendent to change how the -- close some schools and change where some of the children go to school?

CAROL MARIN: There is a very real and unresolved controversy about that, Jeff. When he closed down some poorly functioning schools and tried to consolidate resources, the question was whether his staff fully appreciated the movement of students across what are gang lines. They were crossing into neighborhoods that were represented by other gangs.

And so the question is whether that has been a catalyst to the violence. Duncan today said, no, that the numbers are negligible, in terms of the change of alliances or the movement of kids, but I talked to some people inside the school system today who really believe that it has had a profound impact.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Carol Marin of WTTW Chicago, thanks very much.

CAROL MARIN: My pleasure.