Anti-violence activists worry cuts in programs for at-risk youths could exacerbate problem
|A few stuffed animals and an arrangement of rocks remain Monday in the 8000 block of South Brandon Avenue to mark the fatal shooting last month of 12-year-old Niazi “Ryan” Banks, one of 24 Chicago Public School students killed during the past school year. (Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune / June 26, 2012)|
By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Tribune reporter
June 26, 2012
The number of Chicago Public Schools students killed in gun violence this past school year dipped slightly from the previous year, but the total number of students who were shot was up sharply, according to figures from Chicago police.
Twenty-four students were fatally shot during the school year that ended June 15, four fewer than in the 2010-11 year. But the overall shooting toll — 319 — was the highest in four years and a nearly 22 percent increase from the previous school year.
The rise in shootings of CPS students compounds concerns over an alarming increase in the city’s homicide rate. Through June 17, homicides are up about 38 percent citywide this year compared with the same period in 2011, while shootings are up 12 percent.
The casualty toll includes students shot at all hours of the day, and the numbers from police don’t indicate where the shootings occurred. Still, the number of students who were shot presents a vexing problem for CPS officials who have spent millions of dollars trying to stem violence.
The national spotlight on the beating death of Derrion Albert in 2009 brought a heightened focus on combating youth violence under former schools chief Ron Huberman. He added mentoring and advocacy programs for at-risk students, launched intensive “Culture of Calm” programs at 38 troubled high schools, provided community patrols at schools and enlisted faith leaders to open churches after school and during the summer to keep kids off the street.
Now, with the district facing a second year of deficits hovering around $700 million, major funding cuts have been made to initiatives designed to help the most troubled children, according to social service agencies that work with at-risk CPS students.
Because of a loss of federal stimulus money, a mentoring program serving about 2,200 students lost 64 percent of its funding last school year — nearly $10.7 million. This summer, the church-based Safe Haven program is seeing a $665,000 cut — 40 percent fewer churches are participating, and many report they’ve been asked to slash their budgets in half or solicit donations.
CPS officials said they provided programs to the same number of students last year by asking vendors to work more efficiently. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chiefJean-Claude Brizard, CPS has moved from Huberman’s focus on the most at-risk students to an approach that stresses preventive measures designed to reach students with social and behavioral problems early on.
Advocates of anti-violence programs agree that this school year’s spike may not directly correlate with cuts to mentoring and summer programs. But some worry that the district’s program reductions and change in philosophy may make a bad problem worse during the typically violent summer months.
“Where are these kids going to go?” said the Rev. Pervis Thomas, pastor of New Canaan Land Missionary Baptist Church in Englewood. He said funding for the Safe Haven program in his church has been cut from $300 per day to $200, regardless of the number of students he serves.
“We need programs to keep our kids busy and to keep them safe. They tell us it’s a budget issue, but I just don’t believe they care about inner-city kids,” Thomas said. “They’re not the priority.”
CPS officials say most of the mentoring and advocacy vendors the district contracts with will serve the same number of students through this summer. In the coming school year, principals — not the central office — will decide whether to continue anti-violence programs at their schools, said CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler.
Phillip Jackson, executive director of The Black Star Project, which provides mentoring and tutoring services for CPS students, said an anti-violence strategy won’t work if it looks only at preventing a new generation from taking up arms and doesn’t address the students who are currently the most violent.
“If you don’t do both and you leave at-risk kids out there without supports, they’re going to attack other kids and they’re going to convert the good kids to being at-risk,” Jackson said.
For the last 21/2 years, Philadelphia-based Youth Advocate Programs has mentored and worked with CPS students deemed most at risk of being shot. Last school year,YAP’sfunding was cut by $2 million, bringing it to $3 million, and district officials told the organization it would get only $50,000 to provide programs for up to 170 students this summer. YAP officials said they are continuing to negotiate a summer contract with CPS but may not be able to come to terms.
Similarly, Chicago Youth Centers, which serves 60 students at South Shore High School, will not provide a summer mentoring program at the school after CPS asked the organization to cut its budget by nearly half.
“The summer is the worst time,” said William Hansen, a vice president at Chicago Youth Centers. “There’s always a spike in violence, despite our best efforts. We can’t reach every troubled kid, but certainly there’s things we could be doing if there was more funding to do it.”
Among the 24 students killed this past school year was 12-year-old Niazi “Ryan” Banks, a seventh-grade student who was caught in a volley of bullets exploding through his South Chicago neighborhood as he walked home on a warm May night.
Ryan’s aunt, Brigette Banks, sat on the family’s porch in the 8000 block of South Brandon Avenue recently, looking at the memorial of stuffed animals left at the bottom of the stairs where he fell. Police said the Sullivan Elementary student was killed at 10 p.m. May 19. They are still investigating the shooting and say Ryan was not the intended victim.
As she tries to come to grips with his death, Banks wonders whether her nephew would be alive today if her brother had not let him out after curfew. She wonders whether a neighborhood afraid to identify a perpetrator allows this sort of violence to continue. And she wonders about police enforcement in a community where gangs run rampant.
“They don’t care about this neighborhood,” she said. “There’s no policing around here. They don’t care about us until a 12-year-old boy gets shot.”