CPS has a plan to keep students safe, but students fear gun violence at dismissal

Simeon Career Academy at dismissal earlier this month. Some students at the South Side Chicago public school say they are struggling to feel safe after a student was shot and killed near school in September. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
Simeon Career Academy at dismissal earlier this month. Some students at the South Side Chicago public school say they are struggling to feel safe after a student was shot and killed near school in September. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

CPS has a plan to keep students safe, but students fear gun violence at dismissal

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Eight weeks after two 15-year-old Simeon Career Academy High School students were killed in separate shooting hours apart — one near the school on Chicago’s South Side — many students are still trying to recover and have a normal year.

But outside Simeon last week, several students said normal feels far away.

“It’s traumatizing to most people and … they don’t know how to deal with that,” said Cameriya, a freshman who says she still doesn’t feel safe outside the school in the West Chatham neighborhood.

Dismissal time is busy at Simeon, just like at any other big high school. Hundreds of teens walk alone or in small groups to take the bus. Some hang out in nearby strip malls and fast food joints. Others wait for their parents to pick them up.

“It [doesn’t] matter what type of protection you have. Something is still going to happen,” Cameriya said as she headed home. “So you’re really not safe.” WBEZ is only using the first names of all students interviewed for this story to protect their privacy and safety. “So you’re really not safe.”

The traumatic events that shook at Simeon are among several high-profile shootings near schools this fall. The two Simeon students, Jamari Williams and Kentrell McNeal, were killed in September. Threats of violence popped on social media right after, prompting many parents to keep their kids home from school. In the weeks that followed, there were at least three other shootings near schools, including at Phillips Academy High School, where two people were injured.

Although many Chicago neighborhoods have struggled with violence for years, the tensions have been heightened by social media, the pandemic and a spike in murders and gun violence around the city. All of this is adding up to more anxiety and stress for students and parents, especially at dismissal time.

Chicago Public Schools says it has implemented a comprehensive approach to keep students and staff safe before, during and after school, including safe passage workers at 172 schools, mentoring programs and training for staff on how to support students. The district also has a team that helps schools respond to a crisis, including a death.

Despite the efforts, many parents, students and staff in areas that are deeply affected by gun violence, say they are still feeling anxious. Some say they like the schools, but not what’s going on around them.

“The second or third day there was a shooting around here. You couldn’t even come down the street, you had to go in the back door,” said Frank Latin, who sends his children to Frazier Elementary in North Lawndale on the West Side. “This was the third day of school, so that put me on high alert for the year coming back.”

After the shooting that killed the student near Simeon, parent Amber Williams was also rattled. Her children go to Westcott Elementary, about two blocks north of Simeon.

“I was nervous, scared and worried,” she said. “I didn’t want the kids to come to school the next day.”

But she said seeing more police patrol the area, and teachers and parents hanging out outside the school while kids are being picked up, is helping her feel safer.

Several Simeon students said the police patrols help them too. But a senior named Ryan said it doesn’t fix the root of the problem.

“[The police] job is to serve and protect, but it’s not 100% that they will serve and protect me,” said Ryan, who graduated from Frazier Elementary. Feeling unsafe is nothing new, he said. “ A bullet ain’t got a name on it. … It could hit anybody.”

Ryan plays sports to keep busy. That’s how he stays away from trouble, he said.

Aside from police patrols, and security guards, Simeon has a safe passage route where workers in fluorescent vests help look after students. But teens say the conflicts in the streets are making it into schools.

“There is like a lot of fighting going on,” said Dereon, a freshman outside school last week. “Almost every day. Like five a day, probably,” Cameriya added.

Some Simeon students worry that conflict is pushing teachers away. Cameriya’s drama club teacher just quit.

“It was only her last day because of the school, because of the kids and the community around it,” Cameriya said. “She was like … she is done with CPS.”

CPS said it’s investing in long-term social-emotional services at Simeon and other schools. Ryan said he’s noticed more support, but other students said it’s not reaching all the students who need it. Staff inside Simeon say the crisis support needs to be more comprehensive.

The need for more resources is an issue at many schools, social workers at several South and West side schools said.

“If the student in this building is presented with anger, then we owe it to that student to figure out where [the anger] is coming from,” said Joseph Smith, a social worker at Williams Prep High School, which enrolls about 60 students in a South Side area where students also struggle with violence.

There has been more investment in social-emotional support from CPS, Smith said. Starting last year, he went from having three schools to focusing on just one. CPS is moving toward having a social worker at every school. He says this is the kind of sustained help that’s needed — not just reacting when there is a crisis.

Jace, a Simeon freshman, definitely wants to see more services at his school. He doesn’t want any more trauma. No crime, no shootings, he said.

I don’t want “none of my classmates seeing [other] classmates on the floor [injured] — nothing like that,” Jace said. Like most teens, he wants to have a regular high school year where he can learn, play sports and feel safe when he walks out of school every afternoon.

To make that happen, Smith said social workers, teachers, and staff need to be trained and alert.

“We see these students, we interact with them, we talk to them, we inquire about their lives,” Smith said. “We try to keep our fingers on the pulse of what’s going on with them.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.