STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Almost two years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder went to Chicago to talk about youth violence.
ERIC HOLDER: We simply cannot stand for an epidemic of violence that robs our youth of their childhood and perpetuates a cycle in which too many of today's victims become tomorrow's criminals.
INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY: At Little Village Academy, eighth-grade boys in uniform - dark pants and gray polo shirts, or the school's gym shirts - start pouring into the school gymnasium.
TONY DIVITTORIO: Let's have a circle right here, along the black line. Big circle.
CORLEY: This day's session begins with a team-building exercise. The boys lay down paper plates, then use them to gingerly navigate their way over imaginary lava.
DIVITTORIO: And if you step on it with your body, you burn up. And if you burn up, everyone burns up. These plates are the only thing that can get you across.
CORLEY: Unidentified Man #1: You know, you just start putting them down, and get in front of it. Go ahead.
CORLEY: Unidentified Man #1: It's 'cause they went too fast.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER, CHATTER)
DIVITTORIO: Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)
DIVITTORIO: Unidentified Man #2: Holding each other (unintelligible).
DIVITTORIO: Holding each other - that's a good idea.
CORLEY: It's a fun activity for the boys, but social worker DiVittorio is thinking clinically.
DIVITTORIO: The real purpose of the group mission is group cohesion. As a facilitator, I'm looking to see how they're respecting each other, how they're working together. If they pass it or they fail it, at the end, we talk about it. We talk about what their successes were, if there was blaming going on. We talk about things like that. And then we start to generalize that to outside of the group.
CORLEY: Unidentified Teenager #1: The teamwork helps.
DIVITTORIO: Unidentified Teenager #2: Like when we would hold each other, like so we could get balanced, and passing the plates over.
DIVITTORIO: Did anyone here feel uncomfortable?
CORLEY: Jossue Salgado the students here know well the threats of their neighborhood.
JOSSUE SALGADO: Three days ago, I saw a cop, and I heard that somebody got shot by a gangbanger, 'cause he was in a gang.
CORLEY: DiVittorio says the violence makes one aspect of BAM critical. He calls it men's work, where students sit in a circle and discuss a topic many consider taboo: Their feelings, and what makes them sad, scared or angry.
DIVITTORIO: It's very challenging. It's very confrontational. And it's based on this idea that there's no standardized rites of passage. There's no way for a boy to become a man in our society that's standard.
CORLEY: The curriculum, DiVittorio says, is built around core principles, such as integrity, accountability and positive ways to express anger.
DIVITTORIO: It's important what you think. Man, it is so important what you say. When you say something, I'm going to listen to that. It's important what you feel. But people judge us by what we do.
CORLEY: As DiVittorio talks to the boys about integrity, he focuses on 14-year- old Armando Isaula. A year ago, when he was in the seventh grade, Armando used to fight other students and disrupt classes.
ARMANDO ISAULA: Oh, I didn't really care.
CORLEY: Now in eighth grade, Armando has changed his attitude, and most teachers praise him. But DiVittorio recently got word from one teacher that Armando was still misbehaving in one classroom.
DIVITTORIO: Armando, can I have your permission in front of the group to talk to you about something that's going on with you and one of your teachers? We could do a one-on-one - it's about integrity - or we can do it in front of the group. It's your choice.
CORLEY: Armando is hesitant.
ISAULA: You just really want to be nosy and know about other people's business?
CORLEY: DiVittorio says it's about the group helping Armando to be accountable. After a moment, Armando agrees to discuss the matter, and also offers an explanation.
ISAULA: Honestly, since everybody's always playing around, I just decided to play around, too. Because I think about it like a little break, but it's not all right.
CORLEY: After the group offers suggestions, Armando promises to do better. DiVittorio then shifts the focus back to Armando's successes.
DIVITTORIO: I'm getting so many positive reports back from teachers, and I think you deserve a group affirmation for that. You're a man of integrity.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
CORLEY: The University of Chicago Crime Lab is evaluating BAM and other programs designed to curb violence. Co-Director Harold Pollack says the lab wants to find out whether a program that began as one man's labor of love could work across a school system. Pollack says BAM, at a cost of about $1,000 per student, is promising.
HAROLD POLLACK: We don't want to make any claims, you know, that any one program is going to dramatically reduce homicide rates in the city, deal with the large problems that these kids face. But one thing that we showed is that it's feasible to implement this thing on a big scale.
CORLEY: The students in the gymnasium explain how BAM and Tony DiVittorio have helped them. Gerardo Rosado says he'd learned how to control his emotions.
GERARDO ROSADO: And also what to do in certain situations, you know, not to, like, always do everything physically. You know, you got to think.
CORLEY: Adrien Campos says the Becoming a Man program teaches them about life.
ADRIEN CAMPOS: How to express ourselves and, you know, how to be true. Like, it's not about the gangs, not about any of that. It's about living life good.
DIVITTORIO: Don't forget what you learned here today, guys. And let's BAM out.
CORLEY: Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: We're going to continue reporting on this subject before we BAM out. Tomorrow, one school tries to create what it calls a culture of calm.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: It's NPR News.
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