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A Mentor's Goal: Keeping At-Risk Chicago Teens Alive

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A Mentor's Goal: Keeping At-Risk Chicago Teens Alive

A Mentor's Goal: Keeping At-Risk Chicago Teens Alive

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For the past several days, we've been reporting on youth violence in Chicago and some ways the city and public schools are tackling the problem. One of the boldest initiatives grew out of a grim statistic - about 300 Chicago teenagers face a greater than 20 percent chance of getting shot within two years. So, the school district is spending nearly $20 million to connect the high-risk teens with advocates and mentors.

As we conclude our series, NPR's David Schaper reports on a mentoring program that is one of the most ambitious in the country.

DAVID SCHAPER: Last school year, 245 Chicago public school students were shot; 27 of them fatally. It's a high toll, a tragic toll mounting year after year. To try to reduce it, Chicago Public School officials decided they needed to try to find out who might be next.

So, they developed a probability model by analyzing the traits of 500 shooting victims over two years, noting that the vast majority of them were black, poor and male, had chronic absences, bad grades, and serious misconduct. And using this probability model, they identified more than 200 teenagers who have a shockingly good chance of being shot - a greater than one-in-five chance within the next two years.

Project director Jonathan Moy says the probability model isn't perfect.

Mr. JONATHAN MOY (Project Director): But approximately half the victims who have been shot this year were identified using the probability model.

SCHAPER: To reduce those awful odds, the school system is now assigning paid advocates and mentors to the teens identified to be most at risk of becoming victims of gun violence - mentors such as Albert Stinson.

Mr. ALBERT STINSON (Mentor): Hey, what's up? How are you feeling, bro?

SCHAPER: The 38-year-old Stinson walks through the lunchroom at his alma mater, Marshall High School, on Chicago's west side, greeting boys wearing Marshall's uniforms of maroon polo shirts and khaki pants.

Mr. STINSON: Yeah, that's another one of my mentees right there. You know, I come and check on them, 'cause, like I said, they was a part of that big gang fight last year. So, I always got to come and see what's going on in the lunchroom sometime. Want to make sure, you know, my guys ain't into no type of squabbles and things like that.

SCHAPER: Gangs are a big problem here. Stinson says there are fights almost every day. Most of the 10 boys Stinson mentors at Marshall are gang-affiliated and have criminal records. They're not in that ultra-high risk category of having a one-in-five chance of being shot but are still seriously at risk for becoming victims of violence.

Stinson says he's looking for signs that his boys might be agitated or angry.

Mr. STINSON: And when I go up to them and ask them how they doing, it's a certain look. Just from being in the neighborhood, you know it. If somebody looking a certain way, it's kind of like they're more in an aggressive mode.

SCHAPER: Back in the classroom that serves as the mentors' office, the solidly built Stinson says the fact that he's from this neighborhood and graduated from this very school 20 years ago gives him credibility with the teens.

Mr. STINSON: I have the same background. I was them. And that's one thing I use to my advantage because I know what it feels to be affiliated in the court system. But I also know what it feels like to grow and that's what I'm getting them to look at when they set visionary goals - that you can grow from the dirt that's out there.

SCHAPER: Stinson says the teenagers he works with often can't see a future. As he puts it, they only see what's across the street, and almost everything they see is negative.

The teens we talked to at Marshall say it's often hard to find positive things to do and positive people to be around. And that's especially true of most of the men in their lives.

At the time we followed Stinson at Marshall earlier this school year, he was meeting with his boys almost every day at school. Now, he focuses on visiting with them after school, at home, going to court with them, and checking in with their probation officers and teachers. He's also trying to help them find part-time jobs.

It's the kind of attention 17-year old Antonio Fox is just warming up to.

Mr. ANTONIO FOX (Student, Marshall High School): You need a person to talk to before you do something stupid. You need a mentor or somebody on your side to say something: Man, don't do this, don't do that. Sometimes, you ain't going to listen but you got to listen, so you won't get in trouble.

SCHAPER: Antonio has been in trouble quite a bit. He was kicked out of school for fighting last year and only returned this October. He lives with an aunt after he says his mother, quote, "did something stupid" and he is also on probation. He's says he's seen plenty of street violence - an uncle's head bashed in by a crowbar, a rival shot and left in a coma. And he admits to provoking many fights himself.

But Antonio says he now knows how fistfights can quickly escalate to gun battles, and says he doesn't want to be a part of it anymore.

Mr. FOX: I want to live to see everything. My kids grow up, their kids grow up. I want to see everything. I want to see all that. I want to see them graduate, go to college. Man, I want to see them be more than who I am.

SCHAPER: But just an hour or so later, Antonio was out in the hallway picking a fight.

Mr. FOX: Ay, where's my money, man?

Unidentified Man: I don't know what you're talking about, Tonio.

Unidentified Man #2: Antonio, Tony, come here.

Mr. FOX: Have my money, man.

SCHAPER: And mentor Albert Stinson runs out to try to calm him down.

Mr. STINSON: Hey...

Mr. FOX: Where is my money, man? I ain't trying to hear that, man.

Mr. STINSON: Tonio. Hey, it don't even have to be like that.

SCHAPER: His anger is raw and explosive, and Stinson has his hands full.

Mr. STINSON: You don't have to - hey, Tonio - you don't have to disrespect the brother like that, Tonio, 'cause it's not that serious about two dollars, Tonio.

SCHAPER: No punches are thrown, but the shouting continues for more than 10 minutes, and Antonio is still furious.

Mr. FOX: Ain't nobody fronting. How are you going to try and say you're going to bash somebody...

SCHAPER: Stinson eventually calms him down and walks Antonio to class.

Mr. STINSON: You ready man? Come back down. We're going to take care of that.

Unidentified Woman: Antonio, hello.

Mr. STINSON: How you doing?

Unidentified Woman: Good. How are you?

Mr. STINSON: Just was a little bit of a situation. I had to bring him down so I'm just making sure he come back to class.

Unidentified Woman: Everything OK?

Mr. STINSON: Yeah. You going to be good, man? Yeah, you smiling, man. Go into class, man.

SCHAPER: As he walks away, Stinson says this of Antonio:

Mr. STINSON: He'll be all right. I trust him.

SCHAPER: Later, though, Stinson notes how dangerous Antonio's explosive rage could have been - that if this fight had been on the street, it could've been deadly.

Stinson says the boys he's mentoring only seem to know how to react in the worst way.

Mr. STINSON: It's basically like we've got to recondition them because they was never shown certain life skills. And that's an unfortunate part, because when they haven't, you know, they're not shown certain life skills, they reaction is, they just want to react, you know what I mean? So, it's no critical thinking in that, because they've never been shown how to just sit down and try to think things through because everything is so reactionary. And so it's just, you have to put in so much work and it's a process.

SCHAPER: With some of the guys he's mentoring, though, Stinson says he is seeing some signs of progress. He sees them taking more accountability for their actions, and he says he sees that they are more aware of and trying to avoid what Stinson calls the traps facing young black males.

Mr. STINSON: Brother E.

Unidentified Male #2: Yes, sir.

Mr. STINSON: This young fella got something to tell you.

SCHAPER: And at the end of the day, Antonio comes back to mumble an apology.

Mr. FOX: Hey, I got out of line with you, man... (Unintelligible)

SCHAPER: At Marshall and at other Chicago public high schools where mentors are now working with almost 1,700 teenagers who are most at risk for becoming victims of gun violence, there are other signs of success. The mentored teens are attending school more often and getting into a lot less trouble. School officials say attendance for students with mentors is up almost 10 percent and serious behavioral incidents down 34 percent.

And officials say outside of school, significantly fewer students have been shot so far this year than at this point last year.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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