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Adam Wren/MEDILL

Fenger High School students rose early on a Saturday morning in November to attend a peace summit at Gallery 37.

For Fenger students from rival neighborhoods, peace proves elusive

by Adam Wren
Nov 17, 2009

If not for a beefed-up security presence inside the school and police cruisers idling nearby, little has changed at Fenger High School on the South Side since sophomore Derrion Albert was beaten to death.

At least the way Jeremy Brown tells the story.

Brown, a senior at Fenger, says that despite efforts by anti-violence organizations such as CeaseFire and its attempts to bring together students from opposing neighborhoods, things aren’t likely to improve.

“I don’t think it’s going to get any better,” said Brown, who attended the first of what organizers say will be a series of peace summits. “People are still going to do what they’re going to do.”

Almost two months after the 16-year-old’s death, some Fenger students at the first summit on Saturday say the fault line between rival neighborhoods that many believe led to Albert’s beating – mainly Altgeld Gardens and the Ville – will be bridged over time.

Others, such as Brown, question if the chasm could ever be arched.

Brown, who tutored Albert, a fellow honor student, said he has dealt with Albert’s death.

“You can’t just let things rule your mind,” Brown says. “You just got to go through it. You can’t keep [things] in your mind forever.”

But it’s the larger forces that led to Albert’s death – friction among rival neighborhoods, a bent toward violence as a way to resolve conflict – that Brown is skeptical will improve.

“Some kids feel safe,” Brown says. “Depending on which ’hood you’re from, that’s how you’re going to feel safe.”

A group of parents and students at Fenger have sued Chicago Public Schools, saying the school district’s transfer process for students who want to leave the school has left them in an educational cul-de-sac. A federal judge has ordered the district to respond to students’ requests for transfers by the end of the week.

School officials say because of steps to increase security at Fenger the school is now among the safest in the city.

But Damien Coleman, 16, says security guards stationed inside the school can only prevent so many fights from happening.

“Once you get outside of Fenger, you got to watch your back,” Coleman says. “They’re always going to find a place to fight.”

Asked to point to one underlying cause behind the fighting among the neighborhoods that feed Fenger, Brown needed only one word: hatred.

And though it's a hatred, he said, that knows no bounds, it's a hatred that is all too familiar with boundaries.

“They keep mentioning Altgeld Gardens and the Ville,” Brown says. “It’s not just them two ’hoods. It’s like 10 ’hoods in the school from all over. From the low end, to the 100s. It’s everybody.”

Tio Hardiman, a representative of CeaseFire who spent weeks cajoling Fenger students identified as high-risk to come to Saturday’s summit, also says the conflict doesn’t hinge only between the Gardens and the Ville.

“It’s the whole 100s,” Hardiman says. “We pretty much knew that coming in today. That’s consistent with what I’m hearing.”

Another Fenger student, who calls himself Lee, also doubts that efforts to relieve the tension between the factions will payoff anytime soon.

“It will make a difference, but it will take time," said Lee, who attended the summit. "People are not going to like each other from different sects. It’s always going to be like that.”

But he also says the divide between students from the Gardens and the Ville is not absolute. He said he plays basketball with a friend, Tres, who lives in the Gardens.

Coleman says he is also hopeful that the situation at Fenger will improve.

“Hopefully, it might get better,” Coleman says, “but at the end of the day, Derrion’s still dead.”