Right after school on a snowy Tuesday last February, A.J. Davis shook hands with a friend he calls Lil’ Mike. A.J. headed one way and Lil’ Mike went the other way.
A.J. made it home. His friend, 15-year-old Michael Brown, didn’t. Michael was shot and killed less than two blocks from their school, the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville on the South Side.
“For the two months after that, it was just stuck on sadness,” A.J. said. “And it was really a reality check for us. Like we really have to watch our back and we can’t be kids anymore.
“Like we’re not even safe at school. We can’t even walk to school and come back home. Like, dang.”
Before Michael’s killing, A.J. said he knew Chicago could be dangerous, especially for Black teenagers and young men. But he said it felt different for a shooting to take place so close to school, just moments after walking out of class, like they were “ducks, just waiting to be shot.”
Even in a big city like Chicago where gun violence is prevalent, fatal shootings of students near a school as they make their way home have been rare. But in the last year there was a spike, culminating Dec. 16 with four students shot — two of them killed — at afternoon dismissal right outside Benito Juarez Community Academy High School in the Pilsen neighborhood.
Last year, nine children 17 years old or younger were killed on a weekday in the hours that students head home — between 2 p.m. and 4:49 p.m, according to a WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times analysis of shooting records and media accounts of killings over the last decade. That does not count a 17-year-old Kenwood Academy student who was killed while on his lunch break or the shooting outside Schurz High School that left a teenager critically hurt.
In the decade before 2022, the worst year for murders had been 2016, when six children were killed in the after school hours. Between 2012 and 2021, there was an average of three murders of kids 17 and younger each year, the WBEZ/Sun-Times analysis found. WBEZ and the Sun-Times focused on this age group because school is compulsory in Illinois for children 17 and under.
The total number of shootings, which include fatal and non-fatal shootings, were also up slightly last year over recent years. It’s difficult to track non-fatal shootings of children 17 and younger, some of whom could have been fatalities had the bullet hit differently. But in 2022, there were 41 shooting incidents, which can include multiple victims, in the after school hours involving children 19 and under within two blocks of a school. Police do not identify shooting victims by name and age, only by age group.
This was the second highest number of non-fatal shootings for children 19 and under over the last 10 years. There were more shooting incidents in 2016.
Chicago Public Schools officials say they are working on plans to address the violence. Leaders don’t think anything particularly new is happening at schools, but rather it’s in the context of high levels of gun violence in Chicago and around the nation.
“We’re not a bubble,” said Jadine Chou, the school system’s safety and security chief. “CPS is connected to the whole city, and we’re connected to older people, younger people.”
But the heat is turning up on district and city officials to take action.
The Chicago Teachers Union sent a letter on Dec. 19 to the school district demanding to bargain over issues of violence, citing a contract provision that holds CPS responsible for safe and healthy working conditions. Among other things, the union wants “stronger and clear” protocols for the day of a shooting and the next day.
“This cannot be normalized,” Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said at a recent news conference with mothers of the Juarez shooting victims. “What are the actions that CPS is taking to prevent another tragedy like this? Where are the resources they have for mental health services for the victims and the many other schools that violence has touched deeply?”
Ines Billegas, whose 14-year-old stepson Nathan was killed outside Juarez in the December shooting, last week called on the school district to do more to help the police find the killer. On Friday, police announced first degree murder and attempted murder charges against a 16-year-old boy.
She also criticized the school district for failing to keep the families informed and supporting students left behind.
Instead, she said the family has heard nothing.
“We deserve justice,” Billegas said. “These kids were young, they did not deserve this. There are kids who go to school who are not okay with going to school because they don’t feel safe.”
The school district said it set up meetings with the victims’ families, but a spokesperson for the families said they received a call promising a meeting, but no date. CPS also said it has partnered with community organizations to provide on-going student counseling.
School as sanctuary
Charles Anderson, principal at Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Austin, said he has been disappointed, but not surprised, that shootings have moved closer to schools. They were long considered a sanctuary from community gun violence.
“What have we done to maybe make it feel like it’s OK to do that?” Anderson asked. “And for me, what do we do to change that standard so people understand it? How do we make sure [gang members]… value the lives of our students,” the veteran principal said.
The school community has faced trauma in recent months. Kevin Davis, 15, was killed after school in December within a block of the main entrance. At the end of the first week of school in August, another three students were shot about a block away. And in January 2022, Clark student Javion Ivy, 14, was killed in another West Side neighborhood on his way home from school.
Nekenya Hardy, a program manager for the Austin-based Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, said back when there were more cohesive gangs in Chicago with leaders, members were told not to go near schools and they listened. Now, he said, there are a lot of factions with no single boss to give the message. Meanwhile, young people are fueled by social media praise for negative actions.
“At their age, they love that attention,” Hardy said. “They are not thinking about, ‘You could possibly get killed, you could wind up in a target for the rest of your life, you could wind up in jail.’”
Hardy said schools need to connect students with more people who’ve had experiences on the streets, including older people who understand the reality of violent choices, he said. But it’s often difficult for men with records to get into schools.
“You really need to build that relationship,” Hardy said. “Show them brotherly love.”
Chou said officials have emphasized with school leaders that students need trusted adults in their buildings and outlets to work through their anxiety and trauma. That support should help prevent incidents and support students and staff in the aftermath, she said.
“It is one of the most critical components of our safety plan to identify situations and conflicts in advance so we can try to get in front of them before serious incidents happen,” Chou said in an interview.
Roving police units outside schools?
Still, Chicago police have been dispatched to select schools at dismissal over the last few months, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said on Friday. And there have been discussions about adding more “roving units” of Chicago officers to patrol near schools, Chou said. Those talks have involved the police department but also community groups that have worked with CPS to minimize police in schools because of the disproportionate harm on Black students.
“The patrolling inside a school, to [students], has a different connotation,” Chou said. “But if it’s out on the street, they understand there might be safety risks. And so it doesn’t feel as imposing and much more acceptable.”
Chou said she has even heard from some schools that might consider removing their in-school officers if they have patrols outside. But the key, she said, is for roving patrol officers to undergo the same training as school resource officers. That program has faced heavy scrutiny in recent years and dozens of schools have voted to remove their cops. But new training on de-escalation and relationship building has helped.
Anderson, the Michele Clark principal, said creating a trusting culture at his West Side school is how they’re trying to “turn all this tragedy into a triumph for us.”
“Have we gotten to a utopia of everybody’s living in a la-la land? No. But you could see kids are starting to feel like we’re in this together,” Anderson said.
Anderson wants every student tied to at least one activity or passion at Clark so they feel they have a trusted adult in the building. The school has also offered regular mental health and mindfulness sessions, even showing students how to make candles and use aromatherapy to relax.
Anderson said he isn’t opposed to police units patrolling neighborhoods around schools — he has a good relationship with the area police commander. But he would want those officers trained to work with kids.
“If you’re just driving by as a police officer, it’s like, ‘Oh, that was a police officer,’ ” Anderson said. “But if you drive by and you’re like, “Oh, that was officer Johnson,’ it’s a different feeling.”
Clark is among the CPS high schools that has voted to retain its in-school officers. One officer is a 2010 Clark alum and sits inside the front entrance greeting kids and staff.
Anderson has also coordinated with the Chicago Transit Authority for buses to show up outside right after dismissal.
The aftermath of a killing
A.J., the Bronzeville student, supports increasing police patrols around schools if officers don’t just sit in their cars and avoid talking to students.
“The officer is safe in their car, but I am not,” he said.
More than that, he said, school staff need to show respect for students so kids confide in them. A.J. was disappointed in how the school reacted to his friend’s killing. Some staff reached out to kids and gave them space to talk. But others carried on as though nothing had happened.
A.J. said it was eerie to know that if he had died, the reaction would likely have been the same. It made him feel the city doesn’t care about the killing of Black children. After a day or so, the media disappears and everyone moves on. And yet he can’t get past Lil’ Mike’s death.
“He was still a kid … He still had dreams,” A.J said. “People just try to ignore that when they see a Black kid in Chicago get killed because it’s just normal … But then again, they are not a Black kid living in Chicago … It’s normalized, but it shouldn’t be.”
Nader Issa covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times. Ola Giwa and Matt Kiefer are data journalists with WBEZ.