The Newtown school shooting awakened Americans across the country to the issue of gun violence, but for families in Chicago, the issue was already a bigger part of their lives than almost anyone could imagine.
That’s true almost no where more than for Harper High School. While Sandy Hook Elementary School saw one day of unspeakable violence, Harper deals with bloodshed day in and day out. Nearly 30 students have been shot in the last school year; 21 wounded, eight killed.
In an attempt to better understand how gun violence is affecting the communities in Chicago, the producers from the popular public radio show “This American Life” spent five months inside Harper High School to find out what life is like for this community.
One of the first things they learned was that the students defy many of the stereotypes associated with gangs and violence. According to Ira Glass, the gangs at this school don’t operate the way many might think. “You hear the shootings and you hear its a gang kid, I think there’s a tendency to think ‘he must have had it coming’,” Glass explained on Friday’s PoliticsNation. “The gangs are different now than they used to be.”
“In this school every kid is in a gang… You’re assigned a gang based on the geography, and these gangs aren’t about selling drugs and it’s not about territory. It’s totally different.”
Those outdated stereotypes may be why many Americans may be inclined to judge or have less concern for the victims of these shootings, Glass said.
Producer Alex Kotlowitz, who was embedded inside the high school, commended the staff for providing a sense of safety for the students. “These adults made an enormous difference in the lives of these kids.”
In one exchange chronicled by the show, the school’s principal, Leonetta Sanders, scolded a new student who arrives out of uniform– “You look so cute! Too bad you can’t wear that white shirt.” Glass said that is the style of Harper’s staff: you’re “reprimanded, but with love.”
Sanders will lose some of the support staff she’s been relying on to help guide these students. The school has had “one and a half” social workers, with full and part time work. Next year, that will be cut to only “three-fourths of a social worker.” That’s a loss to the students struggling with unspeakable stress.
“One of the things that people don’t see is just in a human way what it does to individual kids to know that their friends have been shot at, to be there when friends have been shot at, to witness it themselves,” Glass said.
“For all that we all hear about gun violence in this country, most of the shootings are concentrated in certain parts of the cities and we just don’t hear what it’s like to be living with that type of violence,” he said. As Rev. Sharpton said, that’s why the story needs to be told.