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In Chicago last year, almost 700 kids were hit by gunfire. Sixty-six of them died. Youth violence is a chronic problem that isn't getting any better. Those figures for last year were higher than the year before, even though the total number of homicides in Chicago went down. So, over the next week, NPR will examine this high rate of youth violence in Chicago, as well as the city's latest efforts to reduce it.

NPR's Cheryl Corley and David Schaper begin our coverage.

CHERYL CORLEY: The weather is turning in Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER: The snow has melted, and kids are beginning to spend more time outdoors.

CORLEY: In some Chicago neighborhoods, that's dangerous.

SCHAPER: High school senior Marcus Spies knows that all too well.

Mr. MARCUS SPIES (Student): When I got shot, it wasn't no pretty sight to feel, like, all I felt was burning in my whole right ribs. If I wouldn't have got to the hospital in time, I would have been paralyzed all my life. I'm just glad to be here.

CORLEY: We talked to Marcus at an anti-violence dinner.

SCHAPER: He lives in Roseland, a tough, South Side neighborhood...

CORLEY: ...where gang fights claim lives and wound many.

SCHAPER: And Spies says the gangs wanted him to join.

Mr. SPIES: And they were like, if you don't join a gang, we're going to have to jump on you. I'm like, y'all doing some petty stuff, for jumping on people that don't want to get in the gang.

CORLEY: Marcus thinks one of the gangs made good on its warning last summer, shooting him while he took out his family's garbage.

Mr. SPIES: At first, I heard something fly past me. I'm like, it wasn't nothing. So I kept on walking. The second time, it hit me in my right ribcage.

SCHAPER: Marcus lived to tell his story. Far too many teens don't.

CORLEY: Last year, 70 children between the ages of five and 18 were murdered in Chicago.

SCHAPER: All but four were killed by gunshots, and at least half of the deaths were gang-related.

CORLEY: So now, as the weather turns warm, community leaders and their allies are working...

SCHAPER: ...to try to stop trouble before it starts.

Unidentified Man: Cease fire.

Unidentified Group: Cease fire.

Unidentified Man: Stop the killing.

Unidentified Group: Stop the killing.

Unidentified Man: Stop the violence.

Unidentified Group: Stop the violence.

SCHAPER: CeaseFire is a public health initiative that uses former gang members to mediate street conflicts before they turn deadly.

CORLEY: Tio Hardiman, the Illinois director of CeaseFire, says it's important for community groups to get out and be visible this time of year.

Mr. TIO HARDIMAN (Illinois Director, CeaseFire): We can really reach a turning point in Chicago if we can really decrease the number of shootings and homicides during the months of March and April, before we get into the hotter months.

CORLEY: Official crime statistics for last year show that in addition to the 66 school-age children killed by gunfire in Chicago...

SCHAPER: ...another 611 young people were shot and wounded.

CORLEY: Chicago's former superintendent of police, Jody Weis, who just stepped down this month, says the police recognize that the causes of youth violence are complex.

Mr. JODY WEIS (Former Superintendent of Police, Chicago): You know, a lot of this, I think, starts at the home. And, you know, we're not stepparents. We're not, you know, substitute teachers. We're the police.

SCHAPER: So the department is trying some new and different strategies to tackle youth violence.

CORLEY: For instance, police commanders and school principals use an instant communications system to discuss any troubles brewing in the schools that could spill out onto the streets.

SCHAPER: And special police teams work to ward off any gang-related fights and shootings.

CORLEY: Still, Chicago's image as an incredibly violent place for teens got worse in the fall of 2009, when cellphone video of the beating death of high school student Derrion Albert went viral and made international news.

SCHAPER: But despite such notorious incidents, Weis says the reality is that there's no citywide rampage of violence.

Mr. WEIS: We did a good analysis in 2009. Eight-and-a-half percent of the city contained all of the shootings and all the homicides. That's not bad. Unfortunately, if you happen to live in that eight-and-a-half percent of the real estate of Chicago, life is a very, very different world than that other nearly 90 percent of the city.

CORLEY: Exactly, says the city's new mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel. He calls the violence in some sections of the city unacceptable. He's promised to hire a thousand new police officers as part of his crime policy, and says he was particularly struck during the campaign by a student who told him she was driven to school because that was the only safe way to get there.

Mr. RAHM EMANUEL (Mayor-Elect, Chicago): My goal for the four years and the measurement of my progress will be whether that child can be thinking of their studies and not their safety.

SCHAPER: None of the homicides involving young people in Chicago the last several years occurred in schools, or even on school grounds.

CORLEY: Still, Terry Mazany, the acting CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, says violence is an issue the schools cannot ignore.

Mr. TERRY MAZANY (Acting CEO, Chicago Public Schools): We live in a city where we have students who are exposed to extraordinary risks in their lives. We play a particular role in where we see that we can help to assure the safety and well-being of a young person. That's important.

SCHAPER: Chicago Public Schools are now in the second year of a two-year anti-violence initiative in high schools designed to keep as many kids as possible safe.

CORLEY: It's funded with close to $50 million in federal stimulus funds.

SCHAPER: One initiative, called Safe Passage, works with the police, the Chicago Transit Authority, and local community groups...

CORLEY: ...to try to ensure students can get safely to and from school through various neighborhoods and gang turf.

SCHAPER: School officials also use data about the kids who have been shot in the past, finding the traits they have in common, to identify the teenagers most at risk of becoming the next shooting victims.

CORLEY: The Chicago school system is spending close to $20 million on advocates and mentors to intervene in the lives of the few hundred kids it predicts have more than a 10 percent chance of being shot.

Mr. ALBERT STINSON: What's up, bro? You good?

SCHAPER: Albert Stinson walks through the lunchroom in Chicago's Marshall High School, greeting a few of the boys he mentors there. He meets with them almost every day, in and out of school, teaching them how to cope and react without getting violent.

Mr. STINSON: Hey, Antonio. Just bring it down, man.

SCHAPER: He's also there to step in and talk them down when they do lose their cool.

Mr. STINSON: I don't understand that, Antonio.

ANTONIO: He's trying to play with me, man, like I'm some kind of dummy or something.

Mr. STINSON: I understand. What we talked about when it comes to having your anger, man?

ANTONIO: Man...

CORLEY: Stinson grew up under the same conditions, in the same neighborhood, and even attended the same school as the tough kids he's working with.

Mr. STINSON: My whole thing is, I want them to be accountable. And that's the biggest thing I'm working with, like I said, with all my boys, is finding a way where they can start taking control of their life right now.

SCHAPER: We'll hear more from Stinson and the students he mentors later this week.

At this school and others, the goal is to create a culture of calm to counter a culture of violence...

CORLEY: ...by training students in conflict resolution and leadership, and providing extra social services and programs to keep kids engaged after school.

SCHAPER: The anti-violence initiatives were announced at the start of the last school year, in the fall of 2009. But the multimillion-dollar programs were slow to get off the ground.

CORLEY: Chicago schools only implemented part of the intensive mentoring program a year ago, and it's taken almost a full year to expand it and implement the rest.

SCHAPER: Deborah Gorman Smith of the Center for Youth Violence Prevention at the University of Illinois Chicago says much of this focus on high school students is justifiable. But she says there's almost too much talk about helping kids already in trouble.

Ms. DEBORAH GORMAN SMITH (Center for Youth Violence Prevention, University of Illinois Chicago): And very little discussion has been about: How do we stop kids from getting there in the first place? And almost none of the programs and policies have focused on that.

CORLEY: Chicago school officials wouldn't disagree. But with precious little resources...

SCHAPER: ...and federal stimulus funds soon running out...

CORLEY: ...they've got their hands full trying to answer the question...

SCHAPER: Is any of this working, and saving lives?

I'm David Schaper.

CORLEY: And I'm Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Our coverage continues tomorrow, when we hear about a program that tries to teach adolescent boys mutual respect and keep them from resorting to violence.

You can see photos from this series at npr.org.

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