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Chicago’s rising murder rate is troubling for another reason: The danger it poses to education

by Jacob Fischler
May 23, 2012


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, when in fact it’s much more complicated.

“All these problems are interwoven,” he said.

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.

Voisin said Chicago has one of the highest youth crime rates in the country. 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. In high-crime and low-socioeconomic neighborhoods, there are more obstacles on a student’s path to success.

“When a child is struggling,” he added, “it’s usually the adults around the child who are struggling.”

To make matters worse, crime, violence and poverty tend to perpetuate themselves.
Steven Hartley, the executive director of the Peace Corner Youth Center, a non-profit in Austin, described this cycle as he sees it:

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 work 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’re poor ones. But he also said—and 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, making them more likely to go down the same path.

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

And the school system doesn’t offer any relief. “School is equipped for a different kind of a thing, at least in this area,” Hartley added. “And, in my opinion, they don’t really seem to be effective.”

What’s needed is a “broader conceptualization of schooling,” Shriberg said. Schools should work toward a more holistic approach to students’ well-being instead of concentrating solely on academics. Communication with parents and the community is key.

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.