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A Closer Look at Violence in Chicago

Last weekend, 36 people were shot in Chicago, and 13 of the victims were Chicago Public Schools students. This school year alone, more than 20 CPS students have been fatally shot. Looking towards the future, Mayor Daley dispensed this soothing advice to parents: "What we're asking parents to do is know where your children are. It's going to be a long summer, and parents better capture this responsibility."

What do trends in weapon-carrying and fighting among teenagers in Chicago look like? I pulled data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which surveys American high school students every 2 years and includes a representative sample of Chicago students. What emerges is a mixture of good and bad news - the long-term trends are generally positive, but the overall levels of violence are astoundingly high.

The first graph below shows the percentage of students carrying a weapon to school in the last thirty days, as well as the percentage of students carrying a weapon overall, from 1991-2005 (the in-school numbers aren't available until 1993). The percentage of students who carried a weapon in the last 30 days declined substantially from 1991-2005: 44% of boys and 23% of girls had done so in 1991, but these numbers fell to 22% for boys and 16% for girls by 2005. Despite this decline, that's a lot of kids carrying weapons. Perhaps more positively, in 2005, only 5% of students had carried a weapon to school in the past 30 days. (It feels so wrong to say only when 1 in 20 students is carrying a weapon.)

Though most weapon carrying is happening outside of school, tightening up school security by adding security cameras and more officers appears to be a key response to recent shootings in Chicago. Anti-violence groups contend that violence in schools remains a major problem, even though none of the recent shootings have occurred in schools. Gary Slutkin, the executive director of a group called Cease Fire, said in the Post article linked above, "Violence in the schools is ongoing," Slutkin said. "It's not just the deaths. It's the kids beaten until they have seizures. It's the fights on buses with bats and knives.

The next graph, which displays the percentage of students in physical fights in school and overall in the past 12 months, suggests that Slutkin has a good point. The percentage of students who fought in school has remained stable for boys and inched up slightly for girls; in 2005, 18% of girls and 22% of boys fought in school in the last year. But if we consider fights outside of school as well, more than 1 in 3 Chicago girls (39%) and almost 1 in 2 Chicago boys (47%) fought in the last year.

So do Chicago students feel safe? Fewer students report that they stayed home from school because they felt unsafe in school or on their way to or from school in 2005 - but 1 in 10 students still reported staying home for safety reasons.

What long-term effects can we expect from this wave of violence in Chicago? This Science paper, "Firearm Violence Exposure and Serious Violent Behavior," provides some insight. The authors analyzed data from Chicago, and argued that there is a causal relationship between exposure to firearm violence and subsequent perpetration of serious violence. The effects were quite large - "exposure to firearm violence approximately doubles the probability that an adolescent will perpetrate serious violence over the subsequent 2 years."

Education bloggers (present company included) spill a lot of ink over the smallest details of accountability plans, but it's important to remember that this is the context in which our schools are working. Community problems inevitably seep into schools, and the interventions that we spend the most time talking about do little to help kids manage the emotional toll of these events.


Very good data, but I have to hold you to task for your comment regarding the factors of the community "leaking in" to the school. I have lately been very interested in this phenomenon of viewing the school as something other than a part of the community. On the one hand, it tends to let people inside the buildings off the hook (the educational outcomes are limited by the community, not by the quality of the education). But I believe it also sets up a false dichotomy that allows schools to operate sub rosa as a factor that contributes to community conditions.

Certainly the quality of education (in a pure sense) available impacts that quality of life available to children growing up within a community, but I am also concerned about a more insidious purpose of our current "system" of education, which, it would appear, is to maintain the current stratification.

As long as teachers view themselves, and are encouraged to view themselves, as missionaries within the alien urban context, their presence (despite any uplifting intent) will serve as a powerful reminder of a perceived inherent insufficiency resident within their students. This is pretty hard for an eight year old to sort out, much less overcome.

When, and if, schools regard themselves as a part of their community, stakeholders with responsibility for the overall culture, there will be possibility for improvement of not only such things as safety within buildings, but also real improvement in achievement.

I applaud the people in Chicago who have been willing to look at student death by violence as a profound problem to be dealt with, whether the deaths are in buildings, or on the street.

Hi Margo,

Very good point about my invoking a school/community boundary that does not exist. But I am going to argue that school quality is not a primary cause of current levels of violence in Chicago (let me know if I misunderstood you here). Even exceptional schools that attempt to assume responsibility for the overall culture will hardly impact levels of violence. They simply can't compete with concentrated poverty and long-term joblessness, which are owed to structural changes in the economy and housing policies that systematically segregated Chicago.

I'm also interested in picking your brain on how schools can operate as integrated members of the community. How would schools look different today if they assumed this role?


No--schools alone cannot solve the problem of violence, or poverty or joblessness. However, just as we recognize that there are policies (such as those in housing that you brought up) in other areas that have fed the problems, so has education policy fed the problem. Our current school system is best viewed as a dual system which divides roughly into urban vs suburban schools--with divisions and funding streams rigidly protected to keep out the kids of poverty and to keep in the property tax revenue.

Rural areas, frequently as beset either by problems of poverty or lack of wealth (tax revenue) seem to have much better outcomes overall. I begin to suspect that there is a greater sense of unity within those rural districts. Teachers teach in the same system where their kids are educated. There is less sense of us (the educated, benevolent and long-suffering) vs them (the downtrodden, addicted, neglectful or just unfortunate, overwhelmed and not very bright). Teachers are more likely to see parents at the grocery, church, park, etc. It is harder to maintain stereotypes of people you see all the time.

There may be some models of schools with a different sense of connection to their community (Harlem Children's Zone comes to mind, although I don't know a lot about their specifics). I believe some indicators of heightened involvement might be a different kind of building use. Schools are beginning to offer summer ESY programs to increase scores. As I understand it, the have trouble both with staffing and attracting kids. It strikes me that if they were a bit more keyed in to their community they would realized that one obstacle that they face is getting kids to a half day program, with no transportation. Parents who work need full days. It has been a long time since rec and community centers figured this out and converted their summer drop-on programs to more organized full day programs (with before and after care). What if the schools were in regular conversation with these folks and were able to partner up. The schools could provide building space, maybe a lunch, and the local rec folks could provide the rest of the day and the transportation. The way my local district deals with the problem now is the include a block-lettered statement in the summer school sign up NOT TO REGISTER YOUR CHILD IF DAY CAMP OR FAMILY VACATION WILL INTERFERE. Not very welcoming. But more important, not necessary. these are problems that can be worked out.

A school that viewed itself as a part of a community might also be less likely to see suspension or expulsion as any kind of solution to anything. A school that was working closely with the juvenile justice system might not send off overwhelming numbers of kids that they just don't know what to do with--for things like truancy, for instance.

A school that viewed itself as part of the community might recognize that every parent or family member brings something to the table that the school needs. Even parents who have not completed high school generally have some skills or knowledge that is completely lacking within the school. But we squander these because we reject the package that they come in. We don't bother to reach out or get to know THOSE parents out there because (we believe that) they are part of the problem.

Maybe the NEA would lobby as hard for public housing or universal health coverage as it does for the end of No Child Left Behind. OK, now I've gone too far, but, you get the picture.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Margo/Mom: Wonkette: No--schools alone cannot solve the problem of violence, or read more
  • eduwonkette: Hi Margo, Very good point about my invoking a school/community read more
  • Margo/Mom: Wonkette: Very good data, but I have to hold you read more




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