Your NPR news source

Youth Violence May Call for Stronger Medicine

SHARE Youth Violence May Call for Stronger Medicine
Youth Violence May Call for Stronger Medicine

Daggett, 19, says his gang duties included selling heroin at this park. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)

For years, Chicago has tried to combat youth violence by beefing up security forces and focusing them on street gangs. The city and the state of Illinois have also funded a variety of educational programs to prevent children from joining gangs in the first place. But recent events suggest these approaches may not be enough. Twenty-two Chicago Public Schools students have died violently since classes began last fall. Some youth specialists say what’s missing are intervention programs to reach the kids wielding the weapons—the ones already in gangs—before they pull the triggers. We report from our West Side bureau.

Web Extra:

A Young Man Hears About Consequences.

Collins High School senior Julian Daggett is supposed to be in classes today. But he’s showing us around ABLA, the public housing development where he grew up.

DAGGETT: Look at all these potholes. We call this the ‘hood. This is the ghetto.

Daggett says going to school would be risky because of what he calls a war involving his old gang. The conflict erupted March 7 outside Crane Tech, a high school nearby. Attacks sent two students to the hospital and a third to the morgue.

DAGGETT: This is the park where I used to sell drugs, right here.

After a drug conviction, Daggett spent more than a year in Illinois prisons. And he lost an old friend when a rival gang opened fire on a sidewalk. To get away from ABLA, Daggett now shuttles between his aunt’s apartment and his girlfriend’s place. But he says the gang remains a constant temptation.

DAGGETT: You might want to see your old guys. He pulls up on you with his nice car with rims. He’s got jewelry on and, like, ‘Man, you need to mess with me. I’m doin’ this and doin’ that.’ And it’s not too hard to fall back. That’s where peer pressure comes back in. If your mind is not strong enough to get out of this, you won’t get out.

Ambi: Ramelize’s crutches.

At Chicago’s Department of Children and Youth Services, assistant commissioner Azim Ramelize relies on crutches for any move outside his office. Ramelize lost the use of his legs at age 17, when he led a gang crew in New York City. Someone shot him in the back.

He says society has two approaches to gangs.

RAMELIZE: One is you’re in their face and you’re tough and you’re locking them up and you’re really pressing on their jugular. That’s not only the Chicago approach. That’s nationally.

Ramelize says that strategy isn’t effective on its own.

RAMELIZE: The other approach is getting people to go out and walk the sidewalk—who’ve been involved in gangs, who are ex-gang members—to talk to kids so you get at this whole phenomenon where kids believe that the gangs are their family and it’s cool to be in a street gang.

That’s what some community groups would like to do for the Near West Side. Reverend Johnny Miller leads nearby Mt. Vernon Baptist Church.

Ambi: Drill.

Electricians are finishing their work on a 40,000-square-foot community center the church hopes to open by the end of this month.

MILLER: And what we have going on here will be the sound booth. The score board will be up top...

Miller says the center will offer everything from child care to legal aid. It’s also snared a $280,000 state grant for youth-violence prevention.

MILLER: Gang in Chicago is a big problem. What we’re going to try to do is sit them down for a conversation, and give them an alternative—that they don’t have to be in a deadly situation when we can present life to them.

Reverend Miller says the center will draw young people from across the West Side, including ABLA. But the project hasn’t formulated strategies for the kids to cross gang boundaries safely. And it has no plans for intervening in gang conflicts outside the center.

That’s what a Chicago group called Ceasefire does. After the attacks near Crane Tech, Ceasefire deployed a half-dozen former gang members to the area. But the group has had just 25 employees since the state eliminated its funding last year. So Ceasefire says it won’t be able to keep up its Crane Tech work for long.

Many youth specialists would like to see gang-intervention programs across the city.

RUIZ: My name’s Kenny Ruiz. I’m executive director of the YMCA street intervention program of metropolitan Chicago.

Ruiz says his program works in five neighborhoods, but none on the Near West Side. We reached the school district, the park district, the police department, the housing authority and a dozen youth agencies. We couldn’t find any gang-outreach workers based on the Near West Side. Ruiz harks back to the Chicago Intervention Network, a citywide program set up by Mayor Harold Washington’s administration in 1985 after the murder of a young basketball star.

RUIZ: You had a prevention and an intervention piece, which works hand in glove.

As associate director, Ruiz helped coordinate the network’s 70 employees. The program put ex-gang members in city vehicles and equipped them with two-way radios.

RUIZ: If the intervention worker during the day said that there was an incident that occurred in the schools, then the intervention worker in the evening would try to diffuse the situation.

And they linked active gang members to services like drug treatment and job training. But Mayor Richard Daley’s administration dissolved the program in 1993. Officials said anti-gang funding could accomplish more in the hands of churches and neighborhood groups.

OGLETREE: The question is, where do you—there aren’t a lot of pennies going around, so where do you invest them?

Renae Ogletree directs student development for Chicago Public Schools.

OGLETREE: There is data that says, if you work on prevention and building the decision-making skills of young people and their conflict-resolution skills, young people will grow up making healthy decisions.

Today, the city’s focus remains prevention, not intervention. Ogletree would support more of the latter—with strict oversight.

OGLETREE: If I’m supposedly keeping peace and not being involved in gangs, and I’m a young person who’s trying to avoid that behavior and the person who’s supposedly my mentor or something is involved in a gang, what does that say? It’s a strategy that, if implemented, it’s got to be done very, very carefully.

Ambi: Scraping.

Julian Daggett says he won’t go back to school until the Near West Side’s gang storm calms down. But he isn’t idle.

DAGGETT: I’m just going around the chairs, scraping the gum off.

Daggett’s working at a high school on Chicago’s South Side. A street-smart contractor named Harold Davis Jr. employs him and other at-risk young people to renovate school auditoriums.

DAGGETT: Mr. Davis really sat me down and we talked. He’s like a father figure to me.

Daggett only wishes someone had helped him out of the gang before he went to prison and lost his friend.

Web Extra: A Young Man Hears About Consequences.

The Latest