Youth Killings Reach Crisis Level In Chicago At least 36 Chicago Public School students have been killed this school year; most died from gunshots. Community leaders say violence has reached a crisis level, and many blame gangs. One pastor is flying a flag upside down at a Catholic church to signal a call for help.

Youth Killings Reach Crisis Level In Chicago

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In Chicago, young people are dying through violence at an alarming rate. At least 36 Chicago Public School students have been murdered so far this school year, most by gunshots. Dozens of others have been wounded in shootings.

NPR's David Schaper reports on how police and teenagers in Chicago are responding to the violence.

(Soundbite of schoolchildren)

DAVID SCHAPER: It's nearly end of the school day at Simeon Career Academy High School in Chicago's South Side. A group of seniors is decorating the gym for an end of the year Mardi Gras party. Events such as this are often a safe haven for teens in a city that is plagued by gangs and gun violence.

Mr. CLINET JORDAN (Senior, Chicago's Simeon Career Academy high school): Honestly, I'll admit it, I'm afraid to come to school sometimes.

SCHAPER: That's 18-year-old senior, Clinet Jordan.

Mr. JORDAN: Usually they don't try to pull that stuff often till after school, but now they're trying to get kids come to school in the morning, 7:30, 7:00, 7:15 in the morning. That's ridiculous. I mean, we shouldn't be scared to come to somewhere we should feel safe and you can have a safe learning environment. It just - it don't play it right, it's not right.

SCHAPER: Jordan and his classmates know the toll of gang-related gun violence all too well. In March, Greg Robinson, a shy freshman basketball player at Simeon, was gunned down while in the backseat of a car returning home from a game. He died trying to shield his young cousins from the gunfire. Simeon has lost several other students to gun violence over the years too. And it's far from the only Chicago high school affected. Gangs are prevalent throughout the city. Though none of the murders have taken place in or on school grounds, teenagers often have to cross dangerous gang turf to get to and from school. Some of the victims have been in gangs but many have not and are targeted because they won't join or just caught in the crossfire. Simeon senior Diedra Barnes.

Mr. DIEDRA BARNES (Simeon Senior): Like your mind is immune to the violence, not, like you not. You sad, but at the same time it's like it feels like there's nothing that you can do, because it's like every time you turn on the TV, it's like, oh, another CPS student is shot.

Mr. JORDAN: Does influence me to get far away from the city as possible that's why I'm going to all the way to the East Coast.

SCHAPER: Again, Clinet Jordan.

Mr. JORDAN: I can't deal with that. I refuse to live my life in fear, you know.

SCHAPER: You're going to the Citadel in South Carolina.

Mr. JORDAN: Right.

SCHAPER: And a part of the reason is to get as far away from Chicago.

Mr. JORDAN: Right. And that's what my family is telling me. They tell when I leave, don't come back.

Pastor MICHAEL PFLEGER (St. Sabina Catholic Church): What kind of crazy day do we live in where our children are afraid to come home and go to school?

SCHAPER: Father Michael Pfleger is pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church, not far from Simeon High School. Outside of his church, he is flying the American flag upside down, something the U.S. Flag Code states should only be done as a signal of distress and a dire need for help.

Pastor PFLEGER: Well, this is a dire need. This is a distress signal we're putting up saying we need help. We want to sound the alarm. We want a call for helping us to deal with children being shot down in our city streets.

SCHAPER: Some veterans' groups accuse the priest of desecrating the flag in a publicity stunt, but others, including a group called Veterans Against Violence, have joined Father Pfleger and his cause. He wants the country to respond to the problem of urban violence the same way it responded to what he says is a much lesser threat - the swine flu.

Pastor PFLEGER: We effectively called a consciousness of a nation in 48 hours on H1N1. A billion dollars was released from the administration to deal with it. Well, how come we can't be as comprehensive and as aggressive with blood down on our streets of our children?

SCHAPER: Why is gun violence so pervasive in Chicago?

Mr. JODY WEIS (Chicago Police Superintendent): We know that a lot of the violence can be attributed to gang members.

SCHAPER: Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis in a recent interview on Chicago Public Radio Station, WBEZ.

Mr. WEIS: We have the largest gang population of any city in the United States. The only city that really rivals us is Los Angeles.

SCHAPER: Weis estimates there are roughly 100,000 gang members in Chicago. The police department is targeting those entrenched gangs in several ways. One is by what he calls hardening the terrain, having officers saturate certain areas such as parks, street corners and alleys, known for gang activity. In addition, Weis says the police department has a specialized gang unit.

Mr. WEIS: They focus on the actual worst of the worst gang members: the people who are making the decisions, who should be shot, the people who are actually pulling the triggers. And they go out everyday with a list of targets, trying to find these people, these persons of interest, and locate them and try and catch them.

SCHAPER: Weis says the police department is also working to improve community relations. Distrust of the police has long been a problem in Chicago. And the city is cracking down on curfew violations, to get kids off the street when they're most at risk. The Chicago schools are teaching conflict resolution and are trying to defuse disputes between gangs and cliques so they don't escalate later out of school. Superintendent Weis says the strategies appear to be working. So far this year he says there have been 15 percent fewer homicides in Chicago than there were during the first few months of last year. And the number of school age homicide victims is down too.

But 2008's juvenile murder total in Chicago was the highest in seven years. And there are worries that as the weather heats up, so, too, will the violence, as it has in past years. Weis says he will soon announce additional summertime tactics aimed at reducing gun and gang violence in Chicago. But the superintendent and others say policing alone is not enough to solve the complex problems that are costing too many young people in this city their lives.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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