October 3, 2009

Child murder, Chicago style

Chicago teacher Deborah Lynch pointed out in a Sun-Times opinion piece yesterday that one of the Chicago schools' "turnaround targets" this fall has been Fenger High School, near the gang fight that led to Derrion Albert's death and the school where she implies many of the combatants attend. (Hat tip/alternative source.)

I am not saying that knowing the kids better could have averted the melee and tragic death of last week, obviously. But trouble had been brewing at the school even before last week. Staff reported a riot the previous week inside the building, involving teachers being hit, and that two different police stations had to be called in to quell the disturbance. Those are the times when the staff members draw on their relationships with kids to urge restraint, to urge calm and peace, to try to talk things out rather than fight things out. Those are the times when a seasoned staff can identify strategies and resources to address and prevent further problems.

Lynch's argument is interesting and plausible. I'd be cautious of taking it at face value, but don't toss it out the window. As far as I am aware, there is nothing either to contradict or to support the claim that the length of time a staff (as a whole) has spent in a school is predictive of the general school environment. I suspect it depends on the staff; experienced good teachers and staff are going to have the types of relationships with students that Lynch describes.

But there is another important limit to Lynch's argument, and I'm thinking about the debate that's usually focused on academics rather than violence: the relationship between schools and the rest of students' lives. I suspect that if George Schmidt is correct, that the police congregated around Fenger rather than following potential combatants, any immediate investigation needs to focus largely on the tactical decisions of the police. It's possible that no matter what happened in the school, the gang fight would have occurred unless police decisions had been different.

The murder of Derrion Albert is representative of one fact: in violent neighborhoods students are usually safer in school than out of school. A skilled set of professionals can make it so kids are safe in school, safe enough to focus on school. And it's much harder to bring peace to a violent neighborhood without involving schools. What happens inside the classroom can change the conversations that happen outside school boundaries, but there are no guarantees. What if Fenger had not been the target of a turnaround effort: would Albert still be alive? I don't know. 

Update (October 7): More on MSNBC, and more focused, on the rearrangement of enrollment patterns.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on October 3, 2009 7:53 AM |