For Some Students, Commuting To School Can Be Deadly

Some students who attend Christian Fenger Academy High School in Chicago want permission to transfer to another school because they say Fenger feels unsafe. Their schoolmate, Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student, was beaten to death on his way home from school in September in an after-school brawl. Now, a federal judge has cleared the way for students to transfer from the school. Linda Lutton, an education reporter for Chicago Public Radio, and Kavitha Cardoza, a reporter who covers education issues for NPR member station WAMU in Washington, D.C., discuss school safety and how the commute to and from school, for some children, can be deadly.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the new movie, �Precious� is winning raves and Oscar buzz for its sobering depiction of a young girl's struggle to survive incest and poverty. But some critics argue it's the same old Hollywood racial politics, and the movie's uplifting ending is just another silver screen fantasy. We'll talk more about that in just a few minutes.

But first, if you felt threatened on your way to work, what would you do? Take a different route, change jobs even? Well, what if you are a student and the authorities said you can't leave. Some students who attend Christian Fenger Academy High School in Chicago want permission to transfer to other schools because their school no longer feels safe to them. Their schoolmate, Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student was beaten to death in September in a much publicized after-school brawl. Now a federal judge has instructed Chicago public schools to discuss transfer with students who filed suits seeking to leave Fenger.

But the issue of violence on the way to and from school is not unique to Chicago, of course. Many students in Washington, D.C. are also wondering, how they can get to school safely. We are going to go to both cities to hear more. So, joining us now is Linda Lutton. She's the education reporter for Chicago Public Radio. She has been following the Derrion Albert story closely. Also joining us is Kavitha Cardoza. She covers education issues for member station WAMU in Washington, D.C. Welcome to you both, thank you for joining us.

LINDA LUTTON: Thanks for having us.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Linda, this is a rather complicated story. So, I'm just going to set the table a little bit for our listeners who may not remember some of the details. Now, Derrion Albert, who's a student at Fenger was beaten to death in September. As we said, this is a story that got a lot of attention owing to some cell phone video that later became available to the public. And he was caught up in a fight between a group of students who are from the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex just a few miles away and students from the immediate neighborhood around the school, known as (unintelligible).

Now, some of the students who were bust in are worried about retaliation. Some claim to have received death threats. Now, you were at Fenger immediately after the killing and you spoke to parents and students. I just want to hear a clip of one student whom you interviewed. Ricky Rank(ph), and he was 14 years old at the time, in the 9th grade and here's what he told you.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. RICKY RANK: My mom still worry about my safety, so I always watch my back and other people should watch theirs.

MARTIN: So, Linda, first of all, what steps have authorities taken to ensure the safety of students coming to and from school?

LUTTON: Well, you know, it's complicated because, as you mentioned, I mean some of the problems are happening off of school grounds, right? The days that I was there, following Derrion Albert's beating, there was a very heavy police presence. It was, you know, felt sort of like a war zone. There were police helicopters overhead, police squad cars up and down every street.

You know, some of that has now subsided, but security has been increased around Fenger and bussing is being provided. Most kids in Chicago get to school on the city bus or the trains and some special yellow school buses are taking high school students from Altgeld Gardens up to Fenger High School. So, that's one thing.

And, you know, part of the plan of our school CEO here, Ron Huberman has, you know, he's talked about creating a safe passage, working more with police and also with the city buses, so that bus stops could possibly be moved. So that bus schedules could more, you know, closely match dismissal times, for instance. But a lot of what the district is talking about, they're still talking about it in the future as sort of plans to come.

MARTIN: Is this the - who takes responsibility for what happens going to and from school? I mean traditionally when we think about school violence, we think about, you know, Columbine, what happens in the school building. But this is about to and from, so whose responsibility is it? How is that viewed in Chicago? Do the city police see it as their responsibility? Do they see it as the school authority's responsibility? Or does everybody see it as an individual's responsibility?

LUTTON: Well, I mean it's a good question, and I think people are pointing fingers in lots of different directions and it is interesting to note. I don't think this is just outside the school. I mean, you know, the teachers talked to me about how communities, you know, fights can start in the community and then sort of fester in school or be brought into school and fester. Or, you know, we also know that things can start in the lunch room and spill out into the community after school.

Chicago Public Schools, you know, continues to point out that no student has been killed on school grounds or, you know, much less in school. But the district has said that this is a problem affecting its students, affecting learning and it sort of vowed to tackle it. And I would say in Chicago, CPS has sort of taking the lead on this. And, again, it's trying to work with police and bring in other city agencies.

But, of course, you know, people point fingers at kids, they point them at parents, they point fingers at poverty. You know, many of the high schools and its just not Fenger that has a problem with violence and fights and kids being afraid to go to school. You know, they point to the neighborhoods that these kids come from�

MARTIN: Well�

LUTTON: �destitute neighborhoods.

MARTIN: And to that point it's not just Chicago. I mean, Kavitha, you recently reported on a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that in 2007 nearly 15 percent of high school students in Washington, D.C. had missed at least one day of school within the previous month because they felt unsafe either in the building or on their way to school. And in that survey, that was the highest rate in the nation. What's behind that number? Why does students feel unsafe going to and from school? Is it a similar situation like just we talked about in Chicago, where kids are traversing neighborhood boundaries to go to schools outside of their neighborhood and, for whatever reason, that becomes unsafe?

CARDOZA: It's pretty sobering, Michel, to listen to Linda speak and realize how many of the same issues are going on in Washington. It's a variety of issues. In some cases, it's children, especially those who go to charter schools which say they don't have problems as much inside the building, but charter schools kids typically are from out of boundary. So, for them, it's going into a new neighborhood. Sometimes like one school which has had a lot of problems, they are in the middle of two warring gangs, so these children are literally caught in the crossfire on their way to and from school.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the violence that many students are facing on their way to and from school as well as in the school building, of course. We're speaking with education reporters, Kavitha Cardoza and Linda Lutton. Kavitha covers education in Washington, D.C. and Linda covers education in Chicago.

Kavitha, the same question I asked Linda is, you recently reported that in Washington, D.C., the metropolitan police patrol regular city schools but not charter schools which are public, but now a third of D.C.'s school students go to charter schools. So, how did that happen and why is it that way?

CARDOZA: Well, the law says that the Metropolitan Police Department will take a responsibility of the safety in public schools, and I haven't been able to get the mayor or the police department to comment, but what the attorney general here said was that charter schools are autonomous entities, so they have more flexibility with what sort of security they want. Whereas some members of the city council and, of course, charter school leaders say that's rubbish. You know, these are publicly funded. Children are children. We need the police department to step up. And it isn't just outside on the way, you know, patrolling outside the building, Michel. It's also police department officials are inside the school building, you know, making contacts with kids, walking with them to and from school, in communication with speed patrol officers to see that these children are safe. But that's just not happening in charter schools.

MARTIN: Linda, you mentioned that school authorities are starting to talk about the effect on education of kids, on kids when they don't feel safe either going to school or in school. One of the children you interviewed - you recently interviewed a 15-year-old girl that you identify as Keana(ph). And she says she dropped out of school in March because she was afraid. Let's hear what she had to say to you. Here it is.

KEANA: Well, I choose not to go to school because I get into too many fights. And I can hardly learn a thing because the teachers are always shouting at the students.

MARTIN: So, Linda, what are authorities saying now about how to address this? And I'm not sure whether this is a behavior issue, you know, what that is that we're hearing.

LUTTON: Well, I think that this option that kids see, you know, when they confront what they feel is, you know, fearful situation, they feel unsafe, I really think that more kids than we realize are choosing to stay home, just don't go to school. And, I think, we need a better sense of how many kids violence is affecting in this way. You know, Keana told me again and again, she wanted to be at school. She tried to go back to school but she would run into problems, conflicts, basically, with cliques.

I mean, not all of this is gangs, sometimes you have, in Chicago anyways, these sort of block-by-block, you know, cliques, they're calling them. That's what the police are using. I think it's interesting to point out, I know the Gates Foundation, they report on dropping out of school called the Silent Epidemic, something like 57 percent of kids they talked to said that schools could have done more to help kids feel safe from violence. And they talked about class being disrupted, not being able to concentrate on homework because of this fear of violence.

MARTIN: Sure, let me, Linda, just briefly, if I may, what's the latest in the case involving the students who want a transfer from Fenger? I do think it's fair to point out that in the court proceedings, it was pointed out that some 100 students have already been able to transfer out of Fenger. And the issue for these particular students who filed suit is that they don't like the options that have been presented. What's next in this case, very briefly, if you would?

LUTTON: Yeah, they don't like the options and they want immediate transfers and that has been a problem. It's not easy to transfer here. I'm not sure exactly why it isn't, but it is difficult. The judge has told CPS to meet with the students and arrange for transfers. And I talked to the attorney yesterday for the plaintiffs. And he said some of that is moving forward already. But he's concerned about the kids who may want transfers who aren't plaintiffs in this case. What about them?

MARTIN: And, Kavitha, what is the latest in this ongoing discussion in Washington, D.C., which I have to say, has become a matter of interest to the local columnists and so forth. What are authorities saying about what they're planning to do to address the safety issues that the students are confronting in Washington, D.C.? Which to this point has not resulted in a death, but there have been a number of highly publicized beatings and very young students being sort of attacked on their way to school. What are they saying is next?

CARDOZA: You know, unfortunately, Michel, it's not really a conversation as yet. It's more like a one-way, charter school advocates and some council members saying things, and we haven't yet had a dialogue about it. It's really tragic because this small start-up charter school I'm following, three of their children within the first month, one sister was shot outside another high school. Two others had cousins shot right outside their school and violence is so - it might not just, it doesn't have to happen to you. These children who are affected, their larger family, even if they do get to school, they're not studying. They're distracted. They're constantly watching their back. That's not conducive to learning.

MARTIN: Kavitha Cardoza covers education issues for member station WAMU right here in Washington, D.C. She was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Linda Lutton is the education reporter for WVEZ in Chicago. She joined us from that station. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CARDOZA: Thanks for having me.

LUTTON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: The new movie, �Precious� is a fictional account of one inner city teen's struggle to overcome difficult odds. The filmmakers and the stars and many critics are hailing the film for its gritty realism. But just how real is it?

Unidentified Woman: In the U.S. girls are being trafficked. And I'm talking about American girls, girls who are born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, in Compton, California. These girls are being trafficked.

MARTIN: What needs to happen to help vulnerable girls? That conversation is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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