By Maya Rhodan
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Many of the students at Harvard School of Excellence in the Inglewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side are the same age as the 20 first- and second graders who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Aisha McCarthy, the principal of Harvard School, was surprised by how her students reacted to the shooting spree 844 miles away in Newtown, Conn.
“There was no reaction,” McCarthy, principal at Harvard School of Excellence, says. “My own kids were scared and we talked about it, but there was a different reaction when I went to school the next day.”
The different reaction might be because children have been forced to deal with violence when their minds should have been focused on the simpler things in life.
Last year, 21 people were killed in the neighborhood. While the murders in Newtown may have shocked the nation, most of McCarthy’s students were not alarmed.
“A lot of the kids are numb to it, they don’t even have a reaction when things are in the news,” McCarthy says. “They hear about some kind of violence on a weekly basis. If they don’t see it, then they definitely hear about and they know about it.’
A couple weeks into the New Year, a shooting down the street from Harvard forced the school to go on lock down, keeping kids safe for a while after school.
McCarthy hasn’t been hardened by the violence in Chicago. Every day after school, after the last students have trickled out into the neighborhood and on to their homes, McCarthy can’t help but worry about whether she’ll see or hear something about a student on the evening or morning news.
“I don’t want to read in the newspaper that something happened to them,” says McCarthy. “I always tell them to have a safe weekend.”
For kids across the city, at McCarthy’s school and elsewhere, news of a shooting can be as common as a weather report.
There are 438 students in pre-k through 8th grade at Harvard, an Academy of Urban School Leadership turnaround school that just six years ago had been among the worst performing schools in the state.
Now the school, which saw a 34.5 percentage point increase in standardize test results between 2007 and 2012, has improved academically but remains threatened by the environment that engulfs it.
Since 2007, more than 270 school-age children have been killed in Chicago. Since the school year began in September, 21 kids have died from a gunshot wound, including Hadiya Pendleton, a member of King College Preparatory High School’s marching band who just days before had performed at the president’s inauguration.
Pendleton was just blocks away from her school when she was gunned down while walking in a park.
“We wind up dealing with a lot of issues that happen outside of school,” says Nikki Boone-Ross, a social worker at Chicago Public Schools. “If something happens over the weekend, eventually it comes back to the school. Students may get into a fight or altercation, but eventually it comes back to school.”
Ross works out of Dulles and Fisk Elementary Schools in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. She mainly deals with students with special social and emotional needs; so in a school with 450 students, she may handle a caseload of 30.
Ross says the emotional baggage students often carry around after witnessing violence leads to problems in and outside of the classroom, but there aren’t enough counselors in schools to address the needs of all students properly.
In Chicago Public Schools, one counselor is assigned to every elementary school regardless of enrollment. At the high school level one counselor is assigned to every 360 kids.
“We as educators set the bar so high, but some students don’t even see themselves living that long. They think about today and getting through today,” says Ross. “They carry a lot of baggage—all of that as a result leads to violence inside and outside of schools.
“But in my building of 200 kids, my caseload might be 12 students. There are a lot of children who are not getting mental health services on a regular basis who really need them.”
Ivory Tolson, an associate professor of counseling at Howard University’s School of Education, agrees.
“Children exposed to violence can develop post traumatic stress disorder and can be very fearful in their environment,” Tolson says. “They don’t experience violence any differently than an adult does. They become less productive and less motivated because they are focusing on a lot of other things. We need to see in the inner city, Black neighborhoods the same things we would see at a Sandy Hook or Columbine—more empathetic counselors,” Tolson adds.
An empathetic counselor is what Pam Warner prides herself as being at South Shore High School, where she’s been since 1999.
On any given day, Warner finds herself fighting a myriad of battles-from fighting to keep a student struggling to balance a turbulent home life and a heavy course load in school to working with students in relationships to help them make smart decisions about their futures.
“I tell people all the time, ‘If you came work with me for one week, you’d be running out of the school,” Warner says. But the CPS veteran, who has been working in the school system since 1977, has sprinted toward the school, not away from it.
“There are a lot of good kids, but I’m just seeing fewer and fewer as I get older,” Warner says. “It’s exhausting. You care so much about the kids, you find you can’t sleep at night because you basically are the parent—the only thing we don’t do is birth them.”
It’s that feeling of parenting students that makes dealing with their problems so stressful, according to Warner.
“A lot of kids have no sense of living for tomorrow,” Warner says. “It’s a trip trying to convince someone they have a future when they don’t believe they do.”
But how can they?
According to the Chicago RedEye’s homicide tracker, between 2007-2013, 538 people between the ages of 15-20 have been killed. Between 20-25, the number shoots up to 681.
During the 2011-2012 school year, of the 319 Chicago Public School kids had been shot, 24 died.
There have been many calls for Congress to tighten gun control laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, shootings in Aurora, Colo., and other mass killings. But many feel Chicago’s problem is being underestimated.
“I don’t think they have kids in Chicago in mind or their safety when they have these gun talks,” Warner says. “But they have the kids at Columbine in mind, they have them in mind for Newtown.”
Edelman, who has written on gun control in her weekly NNPA column, agrees.
“Common sense gun laws are a critical first step to protecting all children living in our inner cities, in our suburbs and in rural America,” Edelman says. “Having one set of laws in a city like Chicago, and then another set of laws right outside the city limits or in the next state makes no sense.”
She adds, “We regulate cars, toy guns and teddy bears, why on earth would we not regulate real guns? Those within the community need to stand up and act now, as Hadiya Pendleton’s mother and father are doing. As Trayvon Martin’s mother and father are doing. We need mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers – we all need to say enough. Our children deserve a vote to make America safer now.”
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