20-nine current and recent students of Harper High School in Chicago were shot last year, of which eight died.This shocking fact only begins to show how dangerous things are at this gang-dominated school in Englewood on the city’s South Side.
Indeed, things could be a lot worse if not for heroic efforts of teachers, administrators, security guards, and social workers, according to three reporters from This American Life who had five months of access to the school.
According to the report, most students at Harper are affiliated with one of 15 gangs depending on where they live.
“If you live here, you’re part of them,” local police officer Aaron Washington told This American Life. “You live on that block, or you live in that area, you’re one of them. The way they get to school, they have to come to school with one of these factions, one of these gangs. They’re going to come to school with them. They don’t have a choice.”
The whole area used to be controlled by one gang, The Gangster Disciples, but residents say Chicago police disrupted the group’s hierarchy to the point that individual blocks became armed factions that may or may not even have colours or sell drugs.
One student, a gang-affiliated transfer student named Jordan, told Assistant Principal Chad Adams what his block was like in the spring:
“It’s a war zone around there. I can’t lie. It’s just a war zone. People like us, we’re so close to each other, it doesn’t make no sense. Our opposition is right down the street. Literally, it’s on the next block. So we on 70th and Rockwell, and they on 71st and Rockwell. That’s how close we is.”
Photo: Flickr/Kevin Gebhardt
The first rule for the neighbourhood kids — look at a map — is followed by two contradictory rules: never walk by yourself, and never walk with someone else.
WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton explains: “It’s a huge catch-22 for kids in this neighbourhood. If you walk alone, you risk being jumped. If you walk with someone else, you risk being labelled as a gang member and being shot.”
Rule No.6? “You can be shot for reasons big and small.” Rule No.7? “Never go outside … stay away from your block as long as possible, every day … When you do go home, don’t leave the house. Don’t even go on the porch.”
These principles are no joke since retaliation shootings “can ping pong back and forth between rival gangs for years.”
All of this makes the efforts of the adults running Harper that much more impressive. The reporters spent a lot of time in the offices of school social workers, and the listening to students explain what they’ve been through viscerally reveals the public health crisis of gun violence in Chicago.
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