Tracking student victims of gun violence no easy task

Chicago school leaders refuse to confirm if victim attends district school

February 20, 2013

Chicago Public School officials are refusing to say whether kids gunned down in the city are public school students.

It’s a significant change that comes as the city has become almost a poster child for youth gun violence and some suggest the district could be trying to protect their reputation.

There may be up to eight current and former students killed already in 2013, but CPS officials will not confirm any of those victims, citing a decades-old federal privacy law to withhold the information. It’s a practice they say they’ve followed since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office.

For years, school officials deliberately collected and shared information about whether or not homicide victims also attended a public school in the city.

But CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said they’re trying to protect parents and students privacy. She said the district’s legal team advises the district not to tell reporters whether shooting victims attend public schools in the city.

Sainvilus said victim information must come from the Chicago Police Department or the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

But when WBEZ called the Chicago Police Department Wednesday, a spokesman said police don’t have access to student records and couldn’t say where a victim went to school. He suggested calling CPS.

Frank LaMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said there is nothing in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that prevents districts from providing basic information about a student.  He said it’s more likely CPS is withholding information for other reasons.

“Many schools are really, really image conscious and really sensitive to the idea that the public might get the impression that this is a dangerous place to go to school,” he said.

Information about exactly where victims went to school comes out on a case-by-case basis, through families or school principals. So far in 2013, news reports indicate eight homicide victims were also CPS students, including the national-headline-grabbing, shooting death of King College Prep sophomore Hadiya Pendleton.

Earlier this week, Clemente High School principal Marcey Sorensen said since the school year started in August, they’ve lost three students to gun violence. Last year, nineteen students were shot and eight died at Harper High School in Englewood. 

Annette Nance-Holt lost her son, Blair, to gun violence in 2007. He was a student at Julian High School. After Blair died, Nance-Holt and her former husband Ronald Holt founded “Purpose Over Pain,” to provide support to the families of young people killed by gun violence.

She said she can understand the privacy concerns, but argues people in the community have a right to be “aware of what’s going on.”

Plus, when people know what’s going on, they’re more likely to rally around the schools and families affected. 

“Maybe some big business person would say, ‘Hey this school is having that type of problem. I’m an alumni, let me help. Let me donate something,’” Nance-Holt said. “I think these are things that could actually be valuable tools in helping us get more resources or dollars or activities in schools.”

LeMonte echoed Nance-Holt’s comments.

“That’s how problems get solved,” he said. “They get solved because parents and other stakeholders in a community get themselves fully informed, fully appreciate the gravity of a problem and bring pressure to bear on policy makers to do something about it.”

According to news reports, the following 2013 homicide victims attended CPS schools. These are unconfirmed by CPS.

Octavius Lamb, 20, graduated from Wells Community Academy 
Devonta Grisson, 19, attended Gage Park High School 
Rey Dorantes, 14, student at Clemente Community Academy 
Tyrone Lawson, 17, student at Morgan Park High School 
Antonio Fenner, 16, freshman at Manley Career Academy 
Hadiya Pendleton, 15, sophomore at King College Prep 
Frances Colon, 18, senior at Clemente Community Academy 
Oscar Marquez, 17, junior at Marine Military Academy