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Nam Y. Huh/AP
Nadashia Thomas, 6, a cousin of Derrion Albert, holds a sign beside a poster of Derrion Albert
at Fenger High School in Chicago, Sept. 28, 2009.

Videotaped Death the Latest in Long History of Chicago Youth Violence

October 08, 2009 11:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Many hope that the death of Chicago teenager Derrion Albert can lead to long-term solutions to the problem of youth violence in Chicago, which has had numerous high-profile cases over the last 25 years.

Federal Government Responds to Outrage Over Teen’s Death

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Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old student in the Chicago neighborhood of Roseland, was beaten to death on Sept. 24 during a brawl between rival gangs that was captured on camera and broadcast online. The footage shocked the public and brought calls for new strategies to combat youth violence in Chicago.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in Chicago with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to meet with local officials, declared Wednesday, “For me, it was a call to action to address a challenge that affects the entire nation. Youth violence isn’t a Chicago problem, any more than it is a black problem or a white problem.”

A Department of Justice report on national violence released Wednesday found that more than 60 percent of children surveyed said they were exposed to violence and nearly half said they personally have been assaulted.

Chicago in particular has struggled with violence in its school system in recent years. According to The Associated Press, the number of public school students fatally shot (not including those, like Albert, who were beaten or stabbed to death) has risen from an average of 10-15 in the school years before 2006, to 24 in 2006-07, 23 in 2007-08, and a record 34 last year.

Many parents have blamed the recent spike in violence on a program instituted by Duncan in 2005 that closed dozens of public schools, placing students from rival neighborhoods in the same school and forcing many students to walk further to school. However, the problem of youth violence in Chicago has much deeper roots.

Background: Youth violence in Chicago

In 1984, 17-year-old Ben Wilson, the top-ranked high school basketball player in the country, was murdered outside his high school by two gang members who became upset when Wilson accidentally bumped into them.

Wilson’s death brought attention to the problem of gang violence and sparked reform efforts. Government agencies and charities invested in youth programs and the police cracked down on gang violence, contributing to a 38 percent reduction in youth homicides over the next year.

Gang violence in Chicago was again on the rise when Dantrell Davis, a 7-year-old boy, was killed by a stray bullet while being walked to school by his mother in 1992. “Dantrell's slaying epitomized one of the worst problems in American society: Crime had run amok in urban America and no one, not even the smallest child, was safe,” writes the Chicago Tribune, which reported on the death of all 62 children killed in 1993.

Despite the attention given to the story, Davis’ death did little to slow the youth violence in the city. In 1994, two years after Davis died, a more troubling story became national news, landing on the cover of Time magazine.

Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, an 11-year-old gang member who terrorized classmates and murdered a 14-year-old girl during an attack on a rival gang, was executed by members of his gang who worried that he was going to snitch to police. The story exhibited the extent of gang influence in Chicago, but again improvements were slow to come.

Two murders have stood out during the increase in violence over the last three years: 16-year-old Blair Holt was killed by a gunman on a public bus in 2007 and 15-year-old Alex Arellano was killed last spring by gang members. Arellano was attacked when he said he did not belong to a gang, beaten with baseball bats, burned and shot in the head. He was one of at least 36 students killed during the 2008-09 school year, a record for Chicago.

All of us who live here have seen this plot line play out so many times with so many young people,” writes the Chicago Tribune. “We can dull ourselves to outrage. Better, though, that we can embrace it. Better that we add Derrion Albert to Chicago's roster of the lost—and find some way to make these murders much rarer than they are.”
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