One of the discussions that comes up every time there is a mass shooting at a suburban school or a movie theater is how underreported other, equally disturbing killings are — like the ones at urban high schools and in city neighborhoods. Those deaths don’t come in a single spasm, but instead are part of a chronic drip of bloodshed, day in and day out.
Harper High School is that kind of place. It’s located in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, where gun violence has become endemic and seemingly unstoppable. At Harper, 29 current or former students were shot during the last school year; eight of them died.
The school itself is a relatively safe place, but the beefs and fights in the neighborhood around it frequently mushroom into gunplay. On Friday, President Obama is traveling to Chicago and is expected to talk, in part, about gun violence and the city’s rising homicide rate. Chicago’s murder problem hit the national media’s radar screen in a big way after the death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot in a Chicago park about a mile from the president’s home just days after she had performed with her high school band during the inauguration in Washington.
But what is really to be said or done about an ecosystem of poverty, crime and hopelessness that has turned the Englewood neighborhood into a kill zone for the students who attend Harper?
“This American Life” is taking on that story in a two-part series that begins this weekend. School administrators gave access to three reporters for a full semester this school year, to explore the aftermath of last year’s violence as well as the current level of danger.
The project at “This American Life,” a news and storytelling radio show produced by Chicago Public Media and distributed by Public Radio International, grew out of story done by Linda Lutton, an education reporter for WBEZ radio last year. She returns as part of the reporting team for a longer look. Alex Kotlowitz, the author of nonfiction books including “There Are No Children Here,” and the producer of “The Interrupters,” a documentary about former gang members trying to prevent further violence, also reported for the series, as did Ben Calhoun, a producer for “This American Life” and a former reporter for WBEZ.
As it turns out, there is still plenty to learn about this brutal, if common, story. “Everybody hears these numbers and I think people are a little fatigued with this kind of story,” said Ira Glass, the program’s host and a former education reporter in Chicago. “We have this burden of trying to come up a story that they have not heard, which is the story of the people who are fighting back in a very real way, and I think radio is intimate enough so you can hear that and feel something about it.”
“We never say straight up in the series, but part of the subtext of is how talented and competent the staff is in very trying circumstances,” he said in a phone interview. “I think people assume the opposite.”
For one hour this weekend and next, listeners are able to walk the hallways, sit in counseling offices and hear the staff plan for the worst and hope for the best.
The school’s principal, Leonetta C. Sanders, an administrator at Harper for the last six years, is the one who decided to give reporters the run of her school.
“At the beginning of the story, Ira Glass, the host, says that if this were any other suburban school, we would all know the name of that school and we would all know what is happening here,” she said in a phone interview. “People need to know about these kids — their resilience, their strength, their determination to find a better life, it needs to be told.”
Ms. Sanders is relentlessly upbeat in the halls, but sometimes violence intrudes. A current or former student will be injured, and she has to head behind closed doors and make what could be life-or-death decisions about whether the school should have a homecoming event, for example, and risk further violence.
Listeners will meet students who don’t go outside, who forgo friends, who are vulnerable when they walk home alone but are viewed as a threat when they travel in groups. It becomes clear early on that the adults and children who live, work and learn in this environment are not hardened to the violence; they are wounded and scared, even if the bullets hit someone else. They worry their time will come.
“The thing that we don’t talk about is the profound impact living and working in this environment has on people, the profound impact it has on the human soul and spirit,” said Mr. Kotlowitz.
The two-part series contains all of the fruits of immersive reporting – strong portraiture, deep dives into causal relationships and persistent challenges to the conventional wisdom. And you will learn far more than you would staring at a cable television reporter trying to tread water with little in the way of reportable facts.
If it had been any other high school, you would know this story by now. Had some other "kind of school" logged a year that saw 29 current and recent students shot, eight fatally, "we would all know the name of that school," says radio show host Ira Glass in a new episode of "This American Life" on NPR. "If you grafted those facts onto another high school -- in a wealthier place, maybe a suburb ... it would be national news."
But it wasn't another school. It was Harper High, in Chicago, during a year when the murder rate in that city climbed to 506 while it plateaued or fell in New York and Los Angeles. Three "This American Life " reporters spent five months in that school last fall, and beginning this weekend, Glass hosts the remarkable two-part program that results from their immersion.
One early section of the first hour finds reporter Linda Lutton laying out of "the rules" of Harper High. It is a chilling lesson. Parents everywhere think they set the do's and don'ts of their children's lives: Do your homework, don't talk to strangers, don't join a gang. Parents in places that aren't like Harper tend to think that parents in places that are somehow slack in the rule department. "I would never allow my child to ..." we say when the news report mentions that the latest dead student was a member of a gang. And then we go about our day feeling safe.
But as Lutton makes clear, the parents of Harper don't make the rules, and the kids don't really "choose" to follow them. She says:
When I ask kids what their parents don't understand about gangs these days, they say it's this: their parents tell them not to join a gang -- as if there's some initiation to go through, some way to sign up. Today, whether or not you want to be in a gang, you're in one. If you live on pretty much any block near Harper High School, you have been assigned a gang. Your mother bought a house on 72nd and Hermitage? You're S-Dub. You live across the street from the school? That's D-Ville.
There are more than 15 gangs in the neighborhoods around Harper, she reports, and while being part of one puts kids in danger, it also keeps them safe. You don't dare walk to school, or anywhere else, without the company of a gang. And, no matter what your parents say, you don't find a way to stay neutral. As Aaron Washington, a police officer assigned full-time to the school, tells Lutton:
It used to be if you played sports or you were academically better than the average kid, they didn't bother you. Now it's different, it doesn't matter. If you live here, you're part of them. You know, you live on that block, or you live in that area, you one of them. The way they get to school, they have to come to school with one of these factions, one of these gangs. They gotta come to school with them. They don't have a choice.
The reality took the journalists of "This American Life" by surprise. "I've done other reporting on gangs and neighborhoods like this," Glass said in an interview from his Manhattan office. "I am not new to this subject. But what we learned was how little we knew."
Among the many moments that made this clear, he said, was a conversation the team recorded between the father of a murdered teen, and the boy's friends. That dad, Glass said, did "all the right things, everything that every parent really does, like signing the kid up for citywide football leagues and trying to keep him out of trouble." But the friends tell the father -- gently but definitely -- that the gangs are stronger than any parent. "You reach a certain height and people start shooting at you," Glass said. "You are in the game."
Added Alex Kotlowitz, who has made a career of writing about life in "bad" neighborhoods, and who reported through the prism of Harper's on-site social workers, said this series made him see that just as parents can't protect their children, they can't heal them, either. "In the wake of Newtown," he said in an interview from his Chicago home, "we asked all the right questions. Why did this happen? How do we help the children who witnessed and were traumatized by it? What is going to happen in Newtown going forward?"
And yet, Kotlowitz said, "we don't ask those questions at a place like Harper. Virtually every kid in that school has seen someone who was shot or knows someone who was shot but we have never really dealt with the issue of trauma in the inner-city."
Instead, Kotlowitz said, we leave parents and children, teachers and students to navigate terrain that is impassable. And we convince ourselves that their presence there is somehow their own fault.
"What this illustrates in a really vivid way is that all of us hear on the news that a kid got shot and he was a gang member," Glass said, "but we really don't understand what they mean. The feeling we have that well, that couldn't be my kid? You hear these stories and realize, yes, it could."
You can listen to the series here and on the website ThisAmericanLife.org. The first part will be posted this weekend, and the second next weekend. You can also find a list of local broadcast times here.