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36 Chicago area students killed sets record

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chicago - busy putting on its best face to garner a 2016 Olympics bid and basking in the afterglow of President Obama's election - has become the nation's most violent city for youths.

With three weeks left before summer break, a record 36 Chicago Public Schools students have been killed this school year, marking the third straight year that youth homicides have climbed into double digits. Chicago has surpassed New York City and Los Angeles for having the highest youth homicide rate in the nation.

"I think people in Chicago have almost gotten numb to the statistics," said Dexter Voisin, a researcher at the University of Chicago who studies the impact of violence on adolescents.

The latest victim in Chicago's long year of student killings is 15-year-old Alex Arellano. On May 1, he was chased, beaten with baseball bats, run over by a car, shot and burned. His body was found days after he disappeared from his family's home on the city's South Side.

Police continue to investigate the killing; gang activity has been suggested. His grieving family members have denied any gang connections and continue to look for answers.

"The homicide rate is just the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Voisin said. "Those with nonfatal injuries are almost 100 times that of our homicide rates. You think for about every one kid who is murdered, 100 kids witness the murder or are victims of nonfatal injuries, of robberies, muggings and gang-related incidents. A lot of times, this exposure goes undocumented or unreported."

Black youths, he said, are two times more likely than white youths to fail or drop out of school, and at the same time they are also eight to 10 times more likely to be victims of homicide than whites.

"It's difficult for young people to focus in school if they are traumatized by the stress in these communities," Mr. Voisin said.

The death toll exasperates those offering hope to troubled neighborhood children in Chicago - an increasingly tall task in impoverished areas where gangs, drugs and guns are right outside their doors.

"I don't even know where to begin," said Diane Latiker, who runs a program for at-risk youths out of her home in the city's Roseland neighborhood. "There aren't any words for what I feel for what is going on for our youth."

Ms. Latiker uses three rooms of her six-room apartment to run a nonprofit program called Kids Off the Block. She offers tutoring, mentoring and travel opportunities designed to show Chicago youths who want successful futures that the violent culture they see daily is not the norm.

The local drug dealer in a big car with flashy rims, wearing cool sneakers, appears to many to be the model of success, Ms. Latiker said.

"The A and B students, they have family and community support," she said. "What about the kid who is struggling, hanging out there on the street corner and joining that gang because he feels hopeless? That's what I'm hearing from our youth. They feel they have nothing to live for."

Chicago Police Department spokesman Roderick Drew said youth violence remains a top priority.

"Even one murder is one too many," he said.

In April, Chicago police joined school officials to announce the expansion of a program that allows students to anonymously text-message tips about violence. The "Txt2Tip" program, piloted in 10 schools, will be available to students citywide.

The police department, led by Superintendent Jody Weiss, also recommitted to strict enforcement of a curfew that requires children 16 and younger to be inside by 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and by 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Last month, police said they also were adding a third Mobile Strike Force company. Its 50 officers and supervisors would allow police to respond rapidly to emergencies in neighborhoods.

Police said that in two areas where the strike force is employed, the homicide rate has fallen by 30 percent.

Chicago's homicide rate is down nearly 21 percent. Violent incidents at schools are on the decline, thanks in part to zero-tolerance policies on weapons and assaults in and around campuses. Schools also have employed cameras, metal detectors and more security guards to keep watch on classes.

Last year, 27 students were killed during the school year, but all of those crimes took place off campus.

"I'm very troubled that we are not doing everything we possibly can to stop this violence," Ms. Latiker said. "We need to go to our young people and find out what is going on. We need to know why so many feel that they have to have guns to survive. In the civil rights movement, we mobilized to do something ... nationwide. Why are we not doing the same thing now?"

Ron Huberman, chief executive of the Chicago school system, has met with Mr. Weiss to discuss ways that the schools and police can join forces to help stem the violence.

One neighborhood police leader has sponsored forgiveness seminars designed to teach adults from the community that a culture of retribution reinforces youth crime. He teamed up with local ministers who have agreed that force hasn't worked but that changing hearts and minds might be worth a try.

Mayor Richard Daley, Mr. Weiss and Mr. Huberman attended a candlelight vigil recently, hosted by Ms. Latiker's group at a vacant lot across the street from her home. She and members of Kids Off the Block are putting up small gravestones to honor each student who has died in Chicago violence.

Among those speaking at the event was the father of Blair Holt, a 16-year-old slain last year as he tried to protect a girl on a city bus. He appealed to those attending not to take revenge, Ms. Latiker said, because the deaths would be in vain.

The Kids Off the Block program began in 2003 with 10 children and now has 259 signed up. Ms. Latiker said she knows she could take in many more and is hoping for a bigger place to expand.

"I don't put the blame on one group or segment here," she said. "I put the blame on everyone, because that is the way it should be - on our community leaders, parents, churches, schools, the police department. ... We all have to work together here if any of this is going to get better."