Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder are in Chicago to meet with local officials about teen violence Wednesday. The White House dispatched the two Cabinet officials in response to the beating death of 16-year-old Derrion Albert in a wild street brawl almost two weeks ago.
Cell phone video of the wild after-school melee a few blocks away from Fenger High School on Chicago's South Side is all over the Internet and cable and network TV news. In addition to using their fists and feet, teenagers fought each other with bottles, bricks and long wooden boards.
The video helped police identify four of the teens who struck or kicked Albert — all of whom are now charged with murder.
Sherry Smith's son, 18-year-old Eugene Riley, is one of those charged. She says he was there defending her other son, 17-year-old Vashon Bullock.
"He attends Fenger, and he was hit in the face with a brick," she said.
Smith said her sons didn't intend to hurt anyone but were fighting for survival. And she and other parents say fights like the one that killed Albert have been common lately.
The trouble started three years ago, when Chicago closed Carver High School, near the Altgeld Gardens Public Housing complex, and turned it into a military academy.
Students from Altgeld Gardens are now sent to Fenger, almost five miles away, where they often clash with students from "the Ville," the neighborhood right around Fenger.
"They don't want the children from Altgeld to go to Fenger, and this is what it's been — like, they have to fight every day, every day, every day, and there's nowhere else we can put our kids," Smith said.
Like Smith, others in Chicago also blame recent increases in after-school violence on a bold plan to improve education. It's called Renaissance 2010 and was launched five years ago by Duncan, then the head of Chicago Public Schools.
Renaissance 2010 converted several failing high schools into smaller specialized schools. The goal was to improve learning and boost test scores. But it forced thousands of students to attend schools farther away from home and across dangerous gang and neighborhood turf boundaries.
Chicago school officials defend the Renaissance plan and argue that there are much deeper, underlying problems leading to urban youth violence. The problem is rooted in what some are calling a culture of violence in many inner-city neighborhoods.
"Yeah, we fight. Every kid fights," said 16-year-old freshman Craig Watts, who was standing with some friends in a courtyard at Altgeld Gardens. But he said he doesn't know why they fight.
Tay Alvis, 18, said one of the problems is that some teenagers who have very little are willing to fight over very little.
"It can escalate from being with a girl, it can escalate from somebody saying something, somebody looking at somebody wrong — he said, she said; it can start from any and everything," he said.
He said males in particular need to appear tough.
"In some situations, it's good to be the bigger man and walk off. But in some situations, you can't be the bigger man and walk off, because if a person provokes you to a certain extent, you're going to do what you got to do to defend yourself. You ain't just gonna run," Alvis said.
But all it would take to prevent the violence, he said, is to "be the bigger man and walk off."
Stacy Winston works for a group called CeaseFire, which tries to mediate gang and neighborhood conflicts. Her job title is "violence interrupter."
"I think that violence in our community is a growing epidemic, and it's growing rapidly," Winston said. "I think that our youth in our community have nothing else to do with their time."
Winston says neighborhoods like this need resources to combat the many causes she cites for senseless youth violence, including poverty, teen pregnancy and drug addiction.
But in the near term, she says Chicago school and police officials must do a better job of protecting kids on their way to and from school.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says he will ask the Cabinet officials Wednesday for more money to hire more school-based police officers, and they will likely discuss other strategies to reduce and prevent teen violence.