‘This American Life’ Looks at a High School Marooned in Violence
Reader Comment: I started tearing up reading this. Especially the paragraph including this: "...[they] are vulnerable when they walk home alone but are viewed as a threat when they travel in groups..." I saw many of the same issues crop up when I taught in Coney Island.
It's true, and painful, and unfair.
The rhetoric behind many of the pro-gun arguments says, "Look at Chicago -- strong gun laws and high gun violence!" It's almost with glee. They ignore the facts about where the weapons come from, how policies in school closings and housing changes affect a social balance. And they forget that every child (yes, even when that child is 19) is someone's son or daughter.
Thank you to Ira Glass and This American Life for putting real thought and a sensitizing microscope up to an issue that has or eventually will affect us all.
Ohanian Comment: Hats off to David Carr, too.
By David Carr
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? [emphasis added]
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.
NY Times Media Decoder blog