Derrion Albert's Death May Be Rooted in School Closures

Latest: At 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, this article will include a livestream of a press conference on youth violence at City Hall that includes Mayor Daley, Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Even in the cold rain, Danielle Jones would rather stand on the street and wait for her father to pick her up from her high school on Chicago's South Side than walk or take the bus, fearing the fights that start in school will be settled later on the streets.

That violence has increasingly turned deadly — including the vicious fatal beating of her classmate, 16-year-old Derrion Albert, whose after school death was captured on a cell phone video.

"It's fights everywhere — in front of the lunchroom, outside of school," said Jones, 15. "It's terrible, and nobody's doing nothing about it."

Activists say the escalating violence among Chicago's teens may have roots in an unlikely place — an ambitious plan to improve education that's also thrown rival gangs together in an often-volatile daily mix.

After images of Albert's death were widely broadcast last week, President Barack Obama is sending his education secretary back to Chicago where, as head of the city's schools, he implemented that plan. Attorney General Eric Holder will join Arne Duncan on Wednesday when they meet with school officials and students.

Since 2005, dozens of Chicago's public schools have been closed and thousands of students reassigned to campuses outside their neighborhoods — and often across gang lines — as part of Renaissance 2010, a program launched by Mayor Richard Daley when Duncan was Chicago Public Schools chief.

While the plan has resulted in replacing failing and low-enrollment schools with charter schools and smaller campuses, it has also led to a surge in violence that has increasingly turned deadly, many activists, parents and students say.

Before the 2006 school year, an average of 10-15 public school students were fatally shot each year. That soared to 24 deadly shootings in the 2006-07 school year, 23 deaths and 211 shootings in the 2007-08 school year and 34 deaths and 290 shootings last school year.

Few deaths have occurred on school grounds, but activists say it's no coincidence that violence spiked after the school closures.

"You have a trail of blood and tears ever since they launched (Renaissance 2010)," said Tio Hardiman, director of the anti-violence organization CeaseFire Illinois. "There's a history of violence associated with moving kids from one area to another."

Albert, an honor roll student at Christian Fenger Academy High School, was attacked on Sept. 24 when he got caught up in a mob of teens about six block from school. Video shows him curled up on the sidewalk, as fellow teens kick him and hit him with splintered railroad ties. So far, four teens have been charged in his death.

Students and prosecutors say the fight was part of an long-running dispute between neighborhood teens and those from Altgeld Gardens, a public housing complex about five miles away in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods and where Obama got his start as a community organizer in the 1980s.

When the high school closest to Altgeld Gardens was converted to a military academy several years ago, many area students transferred to Fenger.

Chicago police have acknowledged that Albert's slaying was related to the mixing of students from different neighborhoods, but they didn't respond to questions from The Associated Press about whether the violent deaths were related to school closings.

Chicago Public Schools officials have defended Renaissance 2010 as turning around the district, which was once considered the worst in the country, and say there's more to the violence than shifting students around.

"The violence claiming the lives of Chicago youth is not limited to the school week or inside the school," said CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond, without elaborating.

Daley, who said he will seek Holder's help on Wednesday to bust up gangs, stressed that Albert's death has "sounded the alarm again."

"We cannot allow gang territory to disrupt our city life. If you allow that then you're basically waving the white flag to everybody in this city and that would be unacceptable," he said Tuesday.

But some activists say Albert's death and other violent student slayings proves the school-closure plan isn't working.

"Our children need to go to school in their own community," said Virgil Crawford, an education advocate with the West Side Health Authority.

Others believe many of the problems could've been avoided if they'd been given time to prepare for the changes.

In the largely African-American Austin neighborhood, about half of the 7,000 high school-aged students were forced to travel outside the community to other schools after Austin High School was shuttered in 2007.

Some ended up at the mostly Latino Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School, where school officials weren't given "any kind of a warning," said Idida Perez, a community organizer with West Town Leadership United. The result was near daily fights between the newcomers and the neighborhood kids, she said.

Administrators responded by holding student focus groups and social events. Police also did roll calls outside the school, and the Chicago Transit Authority sent extra buses to pick up students so they wouldn't linger outside the school, Perez said.

"Today, Clemente has a really good plan in place," she said.

Jones hopes something similar is done at Fenger, where fighting this year seems worse after staff and faculty were replaced over the summer in an effort to improve performance there.

"I'm an honor student, I come to school to learn and do work," Jones said. "I don't come to school just to see fights all day."

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