Mentoring for at-risk boys expanded as part of city effort to reduce violence

The investment may signal a shift on the part of the city to a broader anti-violence strategy focused on more than police.

February 8, 2013

"Becoming a Man" students at Harper High School huddle Thursday after the mayor's announcement that he was expanding the mentoring program.

In an effort to reduce the violence that has dogged Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Thursday he is tripling the city’s investment in a mentoring program for at-risk boys.

The program, called Becoming a Man, includes tutoring, mentoring, character development and counseling sessions that take place at schools and are provided by the nonprofit Youth Guidance.

The city plans to expand the program from 17 high schools to 40. The $3 million tab will come from city coffers and private donations.

The investment may signal a shift on the part of the city to a broader anti-violence strategy. Until now, Emanuel has tended to talk about the city’s violent crime as a police issue. His first action following 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton’s death last week was to announce a redeployment of 200 police officers from their desk jobs to the streets.

But schools are on the frontlines of the city’s violence daily. Emanuel announced the extra funding at South Side Harper High School, which has been especially hard hit. Things got so bad, the principal at Harper began to keep a binder of current and former students wounded by gunshots.  She recorded 27 victims after 13 months. Eight of them died.

Since WBEZ wrote about principal Leonetta Sanders and Harper High last summer, nine more current and former Harper students have been wounded by gun violence, one fatally.

Still, despite the school’s need, and despite studies that show Becoming a Man has promising results, at the beginning of this school year, there was not enough money to fund the Becoming A Man program at Harper.

Jens Ludwig is director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He praised the city’s expansion of the program.

“There are a million programs around the city right now that are trying to reduce the risk of young guys getting involved in violence, and right now for 99.9 percent of these programs, we really have no idea which ones are really good investments that are worthwhile for the city, and which ones are not nearly as promising as we’d hoped,” says Ludwig. “And I think it is fantastic that the city is paying attention to what evidence tells us about where our best bets are for investments.”

Most people are like the mayor, says Ludwig: “We talk about prisons and we talk about cops.” He says people are skeptical that social programs can really prevent crime. But the Crime Lab’s recent study, which it says is the largest randomized clinical trial ever conducted with an urban youth population, found that boys involved in  BAM showed drastic declines in violent crime involvement—40 percent reductions—and better attendance and performance at school.

The Crime Lab has calculated there are about 7,000 severely at-risk boys in the city. With the added investment announced by the mayor, BAM will be able to serve 2,000 students, up from the current 600. The mayor also announced more summer jobs for teens.

Two sources with knowledge of the situation told WBEZ the mayor has become more convinced in recent days that he cannot address the city’s violence problem through police alone.

In a private visit closed to media, Emanuel sat in on a BAM session at Harper on Wednesday.

“I didn’t know he was that cool,” said sophomore Arjay Howard, one of the boys who sat in a circle with the mayor. “He likes to joke around and stuff, he’s real down to earth….He was touched by most of our stories and stuff, I could tell he felt for us, and he wanted to do something about it for us,” said Howard.

Harper boys involved in Becoming a Man say at first they were reluctant to join a program that makes them “check in” with the group about how they feel physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Now, they say, they look forward to the sessions.

One of the boys, Marcus Norris, was shot in the face when he was nine. A bullet ripped through the wall of his Englewood home. He said the counseling and mentoring sessions he gets at Harper through Becoming a Man have helped him look forward, not back.