The School District's Crisis Team Copes With Violence

June 6, 2008

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Crane HS students react to violence there earlier this year. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
Dealing with violence or the death of a friend isn't easy, especially for teenagers. In an ideal world, everyone would get the proper counseling and time to grieve in the way best fit for them. Chicago Public School students who have been touched by violence this year are supposed to get help from the Districts' crisis intervention unit.

Dorothy Espelage is a professor in educational psychology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. For years, she's been researching how young people process violent events in their lives.

ESPELAGE: Some of the kids after the violence do need very fast intervention, brief intervention. Others it may be years that if they were directly involved or bystanders it may be that years that they deal with this. 

Thirty CPS students have died a violent death during the school year. The District's Crisis Intervention Unit or CIU, responds to everything from severe weather to a violent event. This school year, it's handled over 550 cases.

MALATT: We focus on prevention, we focus on being prepared, we focus on as I stated previously response and then on follow-up.

CIU manager Catherine Malatt says her team of 8 work in field offices located through out the city. Sometimes facilitators work on multiple cases per day.

MALATT: We continuously assess particular situations to see what works, what doesn't work to, what we need to adjust for our own school system.

Malatt says the 8 facilitators are either licensed or certified psychologists, social workers or counselors. And extra counselors may be called in from agencies like Hargrove Hospital. But crises intervention sometimes hits obstacles.

Over spring break a student at Gage Park High School was fatally shot. Some teachers and students at the school say not enough was done to help everyone process this student's death.

RODRIGUEZ: It was pretty crazy because I saw him 2 days before he got shot. It was kind of creepy.

Freshman Gerardo Rodriguez says he used to talk to the boy at school.

RODRIGUEZ: He wasn't that bad of a guy. He just hung around with the wrong crowd and that's what got him killed. I know a lot of people who are on the same road. Sometimes it might affect me.

CIU sent a facilitator to the school after the break, but Rodriguez says he and other students didn't know anyone was there to help. And that's what got teachers like Roberto Paredes upset.

PAREDES: That kind of bothered me. And I don't quite understand that because none of the students told me that they received any such support that first day.

CIU came to the school again, but Paredes says he doubts his Latino and African-American students are going to feel comfortable talking to a stranger they can't identify with.

PAREDES: The kids really needed somebody that would really understand their culture and understand the way they think and really understand what is going on. And I mean the people that they send, they might have good intentions, but actually it really doesn't work for them.

The crisis team worked with the administration to pin point the students affected by their classmate's death according to CIU's Malatt. And she says teachers are responsible for letting principals know if individual students are having problems.

MALATT: The school sets the tone for what is to occur. So based on what the administration is telling us what they need then we approach it that way.

But at least two other teachers besides Paredes say they didn't know this and that there was very little communication within the school on how to handle the students. Teachers are also handling their own grief Some schools are getting help with this. This year CPS began school by school non-violent crisis intervention trainings. Gage Park is scheduled for on of these sessions. But Espelage says ideally an extensive training should happen in the teaching universities.

ESPELAGE: Ultimately we need to go back and think about how can we do primary prevention and that should involve the teachers, but until we free up the time for teachers to pay attention to psycho social development and social competence and emotional competence in children there's no way they're going to be able to do this.

Espelage says what would help more is community involvement. She says CPS should bring in more parents, clergymen or neighborhood volunteers. Intervention could simply mean hanging out and playing basketball.

ESPELAGE: It doesn't have to be this one on one individual psycho therapy that many times kids will tell you things as they're walking to the water fountain to always be open to listening to kids that sometimes they will tell you in passing some very important information.

And that's what happened with Gage Park student Rodriguez. He's a youth leader for the Southwest Organizing Project, a community organization in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. And it was with people there that he found support after the death of his fellow student, not at school.

RODRIGUEZ: It's a place where I can express my feelings or talk to the organizers or workers here or anything. I'm kind of thankful that I came here because it let me release a lot about my life that I never told anyone else.
 
Crisis team head Malatt says the intervention unit has several community partners and can't do its job without this collaboration. But for this involvement to happen, Malatt says organizations need to reach out to CPS.