After Chicago Teen's Violent Death, White House Tries to Mitigate School Violence

Rising youth violence in Chicago prompts the White House to intervene.

October 7, 2009, 7:55 PM

Oct. 7, 2009— -- The White House has decided to intervene after a national uproar over cell phone video showing a 16-year-old student, Derrion Albert, being bludgeoned and stomped to death at Fenger High School in Chicago by four other teenagers.

"This is a line in the sand and we have to get dramatically better," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke today at Chicago City Hall with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Duncan announced the Education Department plans to award a $500,000 grant, funded by the School Emergency Response to Violence program, to help Fenger High School restore a peaceful learning environment. Among other things, the money will fund safe transportation for students to and from school and increased student support programs.

"Heartbreaking," said Duncan, "that it takes capturing a death on video to wake the country."

The honor student's Sept. 24 death outraged many in Chicago, but is only the latest of a number of high-profile cases of fatal high school violence in the city. In each of the last two years, Chicago has lost the equivalent of an entire classroom to instances of school violence. In one, a 5-year-old boy in kindergarten was maimed for life.

Duncan warned there was no quick fix.

"This is not about the money. Money alone will never solve this problem. It's about our values," Duncan said. "It's about who we are as a society. And it's about taking responsibility for our young people, to teach them what they need to know to live side-by-side and deal with their differences without anger or violence."

Chicago's Mt. Sinai Children's Hospital treats around 200 children a year who've been shot, stabbed and beaten.

Dr. Dennis Vickers, chairman of pediatrics at the hospital, blamed gang violence surrounding the children in some Chicago neighborhoods.

"Some of these neighborhoods are definitely war zones in every real sense of the word," Vickers said. "Now, because [students] have access to guns, a fistfight turns into more."

In an unprecedented study, school officials examined 500 shootings, and now plan to focus attention on the most likely instigators and victims -- black males, who skip big chunks of school and get in trouble far more often than fellow students.

"If we engage them with meaningful interventions, we have a much stronger likelihood of improving their outcomes and allowing them to make better decisions," said Ron Huberman, chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools.

"We simply cannot stand for an epidemic of violence that robs our youth of their childhood," Holder said.

But some are blaming education reform initiatives in Chicago for the rising school violence.

Fenger High School, where 16-year-old Albert was a student, is in its first year as a "turnaround" school -- a reform model in which the entire staff of a troubled school is fired and replaced with new teachers and principals.

As the former head of Chicago's public schools, Duncan oversaw the opening of eight turnaround schools. Many claim the model creates instability for students by severing teacher-student relationships.

"We believe that turnarounds are what have caused a lot of this increasing violence," said Rose-Maria Genova of the Chicago Teachers Union. "Teachers have longtime relationships with these students, they know the families, they know the children and they are familiar with their circumstances. When you disrupt this relationship, you are going to have more unpredictable behavior."

In addition, since 2005, dozens of failing Chicago public schools have been completely shut down, with students reassigned to schools in other neighborhoods, often forcing rival gangs into the same classroom. The closures were part of a broader reform initiative launched by Daley and placed under Duncan's leadership.

According to the AP, before the 2006 school year, an average of 10-15 public school students were killed in shootings each year. That number increased dramatically to 34 deaths and 290 shootings in the last school year.

Huberman said he hears "theories all the time" of education reform causing the violence, but he believed its causes are complicated, and a multi-faceted problem many years in the making.

Vickers said children in Chicago are terrified of the violence in school and their neighborhoods.

"These kids have fears that are just really unfathomable to most people," he said. "They're worried they're going to come home and their mom is going to be dead."

Their parents are just as terrified.

Carla Lucious's 14-year-old daughter, Ameenah Haqque, rides a city bus home from school more than 3 miles every day, past a rival school and through gang territory.

"I just pray every day that she gets home from school safely," Lucious said.

ABC News' Mary Bruce contributed to this report.

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