Chicago's rising murder rate posing threat to kids' education

169 people killed in city during first five months

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By JACOB FISCHLER

In the first 127 days of this year, 169 people were murdered in Chicago.

Based on the latest data available from the Chicago Police Department, which includes statistics up to May 6, the city is on pace for more than 500 murders in a year for the first time since 2008, and only the second time in the last nine years. Research indicates high crime, especially when concentrated in particular neighborhoods, has an impact far beyond the crime itself.

Dexter Voisin, an associate professor in the School of Social Service administration at the University of Chicago, said that, as a society, we tend to think of issues related to violence, poverty and low academic outcomes in isolation. The professor, however, insists it's much more complicated.

He said all of those problems are interwoven. For example, students in violent neighborhoods are more likely to have higher truancy rates because they may not feel safe getting to and from school.

"If you have a choice of going to school or saving your life, which one are you going to go with?" Voisin said.

Chicago has one of the highest youth crime rates in the country, Voisin said. But high crime has an effect on kids, even if they aren't directly involved in it.

"For a student to achieve learning potential, a lot of things have to go well," said David Shriberg, a Loyola University professor of school psychology. He argues that in high-crime and low-socioeconomic neighborhoods, there are more obstacles on a student's path to success.

"When a child is struggling, it's usually the adults around the child who are struggling," the professor said.

Perspective from the Peace Corner

To make matters worse, crime, violence and poverty tend to perpetuate themselves.

Steven Hartley, executive director of the nonprofit Peace Corner Youth Center in Austin, described this cycle like this:

A young man grows up in a high-crime neighborhood. His father is in prison, and not coming out anytime soon. His mother is an alcoholic and doesn't take care of the young man or his younger brother. Both of the brothers are often hungry and ill-clothed. At 11 or 12 years old, the boy is drawn into selling drugs for a gang to take care of himself and his brother. Sooner or later, the young man is arrested and acquires a criminal record.

Hartley emphasized that throughout this story, which he says is a true account of someone he knows well, the boy makes his own choices - and they are poor ones. But Hartley adds that while this is the tragic irony of the cycle, it's difficult for kids to make good choices when they don't have good, or any, parental guidance.

"What kind of choices would you have made when you were 12 if you had no guidance? Not good ones," Hartley said. "At least I wouldn't have. I mean, I made terrible choices and I had my parent around."

The school system doesn't offer any relief either, the professor said.

"School is equipped for a different kind of a thing, at least in [the Austin] area. And, in my opinion, they don't really seem to be effective."

For his part, Hartley's Peace Corner focuses on giving kids a safe and nurturing environment. Kids at the Peace Corner's after-school program spend their first half-hour doing homework. After that they're free to play basketball, work on crafts or hang out and just be kids.

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