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 Kelsey Snell/MEDILL

 A billboard at 6743 S. Ashland trumpets a $5,000 award for information that leads to arrest and conviction of youth killers. The billboard, unveiled two months after the death of Derrion Albert by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, is funded by donations from congregants and community members.

Medill exclusive: Chicago again poised to be country’s most violent city for youth

by Adam Wren
Nov 24, 2009

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Related story: South Side church posts bounty on youth killersTimeline: A season of youth violenceInteractive map: youth violence near schools

Duncan travel schedule doesn't deliver on October promise

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Chicago in the aftermath of  Derrion Albert’s death, he framed his visit as the beginning of a national conversation on youth violence.

“This is the time to look in the collective mirror and ask whether we like what we see or whether we can do better,” said Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools. “We plan to go to other cities, and to meet and talk with people and find ways to protect our children.”

But Duncan’s public schedule and press releases – both available on his Web site – has had no youth violence-related events since his visit to Chicago on Oct. 7, and none slated for the rest of 2009.

Why the apparent disconnect?

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Education, said the issue of addressing youth violence was folded into the mission of what the department already does.  He said Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Safety and Security and Drug Free Schools Kevin Jennings travels the country on a weekly basis talking about these issues.

Hamilton said Duncan and Holder are also looking for ways for their departments to collaborate on these issues.

“The main way to address this issue is not just to address this issue from the bully pulpit,” Hamilton said, “but from the policy work we’re doing everyday.”

Chicago is on the brink of yet another year as the country’s most dangerous city for youths, according to a Medill Reports analysis of city and state police records and U.S. census data.

In a year when the city has come under the glare of media camera lights for the beating death of 16-year-old Derrion Albert, Chicago’s youth homicide rate is set to eclipse those of major cities such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia, with two months still remaining in 2009.

Since 2006, Chicago has been at the top of the country’s five most populous cities in youth homicides, statistics show. If Chicago’s current homicide rate continues over the last two months of this year, the city would experience almost 1.5 youth homicides per 100,000 residents in 2009, clutching the dubious distinction for the fourth year in a row.

“Chicago has become the ground zero for youth violence,” said Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Chicago-based Black Star Project, which specializes in mentoring low-income black and Latino youths at risk of committing or being victimized by violence. “Children in Chicago have the mentality of children who live in legitimate war zones. They can’t even concentrate on academics, on being children.”

The statistics seem to belie recent comments by public officials – from the U.S. Attorney General to the Chicago Police Superintendent – that youth violence in Chicago is not as bad as it appears to be.

Dispatched to Chicago by President Obama to quell concerns after a video of Derrion Albert’s fatal beating hit airwaves nationwide, Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to frame youth violence as a U.S. problem, not only a Chicago one.

“Youth violence is not a Chicago problem, any more than it is a black problem, a white problem, or a Hispanic problem,” said Holder, flanked by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Mayor Richard M. Daley, at an Oct. 7 City Hall press conference. “It is something that affects communities big and small, and people of all races and all colors. It is an American problem.”

Duncan took a similar tack.

“Chicago is not unique,” he said. “Four students have been shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, already this year. Philadelphia, Seattle, Miami, New Orleans, and many rural communities have also lost schoolchildren to violence in recent weeks.”

And in October, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Jody Weis announced a 47 percent decline in homicides in which youths were involved over the first nine months of 2009 compared with the same period last year.

But, zooming out, numbers compiled by Medill Reports tell a different, more unsettling tale.

Through October, Chicago has seen 33 children under the age of 17 killed, a rate of about 1.2 homicides per 100,000 residents. That trend, if projected over the last two months of this year, would result in a youth homicide rate of nearly 1.5 per 100,000.

That figure is almost a third higher than the youth homicide rate of the next closest city, Phoenix, which is around 1.2 homicides per 100,000.

Last year, at the top of a handful of the nation’s largest cities, Chicago had a homicide rate of about 1.8 youth homicides per 100,000 residents. The city’s rate exceeded that of Los Angeles, which saw 1.1 youth homicides per 100,000 residents in 2008.

Homicide statistics were obtained by Medill Reports through public records requests of city police departments and state Uniform Crime Reporting offices in Arizona, California, New York and Pennsylvania, and cross-referenced with population data from the U.S. census.

The figures include instances when the victim was under the age of 17, except for New York City, which tracks homicide victims from the ages of 1 to 15 and 16 to 19.

The statistics and the violent episodes they reflect punctuate a particularly violent school year for many students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, said the Black Star’s Jackson.

“With the death of the school board president, he was working on the issue of violence,” Jackson said of Michael Scott, who is believed to have committed suicide last week. “It confirms for children what they already know: They live in a violent world.”

A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman said that since the beginning of the school year, 12 students had been killed and 78 shot.

Jackson said he is especially disturbed by what he sees as the changing profile of the youth homicide victim. Where in the past many victims were known gang members, now victims like Derrion Albert are honor students, he said.

“The people who are dying are people who are innocent, who are caught in the crossfire,” Jackson said.

That’s also a trend observed by Dexter Voisin, a University of Chicago researcher who studies youth violence.

“This flies in the face of conventional thinking,” Voisin said of the trend. “It really draws attention to the fact that something is really wrong here.”

But, as Voisin said, “homicides are only the tip of the iceberg.”

Voisin said many other types of violence – battery and assault, for example – impact children deeply, despite going unreported in many cases.

In a study of one Chicago Public School, which will appear in an upcoming volume of the Journal of Adolescent Health, Voisin and his colleagues found that 45.7 percent of students had witnessed someone being injured or killed in a non-gang incident.

“Our lens is so narrow,” Voisin said, “that we’re really not fully understanding the extent of [youth violence].”

Voisin said the alarming rate of homicides in Chicago has dulled peoples’ senses to the shocking nature of youth violence.

“It’s become so common that something that is an aberration has become normalized,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s sort of become commonplace.”