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487: Harper High School - Part One

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Harper High School, South Side of Chicago, first day of school this year, first thing in the morning, everybody gathers in the gym for a beginning of the year assembly.

[GYM CHATTER]

The School's principal, Leonetta Sanders, is at the mic.

Leonetta Sanders

I need us to begin to quiet down.

Ira Glass

Sitting all together in a group are the freshmen, looking the way that freshmen do on the first day of school, like they barely know who they are--

Leonetta Sanders

The Class of 2016, where you at? The Class of 2016, where you at?

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

Down in front, sitting together, are the seniors, looking the way seniors do on the first day of school--

Leonetta Sanders

And then my babies are here, my Class of 2013, (YELLING) where you at?

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

The program is 1/3 pep rally, 2/3 business, introductions, and rules. Exactly the kind of first day stuff you'd expect at any school, till it's not.

Leonetta Sanders

Last year was a difficult year for most of us, for all of us in the Harper community. You know, and the freshman may not know, but we lost three students last year.

Ira Glass

This is actually underplaying the bad news. Last year, 21 kids, current and recent Harper students, were wounded by gunshots. Five recent students died. And that is all on top of the three current students that Miss Sanders mentioned. Total, 29 shot, eight of them dead.

Leonetta Sanders

But we know that their spirits are with us. So right now, I just want to ask for a moment of silence and prayer as we think about and remember the students that have fallen. So at this time, I'm just going to ask that we take about 20, 30 seconds, just for a moment of silence for Marcus Nunn, Cedric Bell, and Shakaki Asphy, right now.

Ira Glass

Watching this, it's hard not to think that if you grafted these facts onto another high school in a wealthier place, maybe a suburb, dozens of students shot, three of them killed-- in other places, that would be national news, right? We would all know the name of that school.

It's worth noting that this is a gym filled with hundreds of teenagers who, this very same morning, have been asked over and over to be quiet. And who, like most teenagers, haven't exactly jumped to. When this moment comes, nothing moves.

Leonetta Sanders

Praise God.

Ira Glass

And then, high school resumes.

Leonetta Sanders

At this time, again, for the freshmen and some new students that are here, my name is Leonetta Sanders. I am--

Ira Glass

On Friday of this week, President Obama went to a Chicago high school and spoke about all the shootings happening in our cities. We've all heard so much lately about kids getting shot. Last weekend, there was a funeral, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, an honor student who was shot in a park in mid-afternoon in Chicago, just a week after performing at an inaugural event in Washington.

Last year the number of murders in Chicago rose while in many other big cities like New York and Los Angeles, it held steady or fell. It was 506 dead in Chicago last year. But of course, these deaths aren't evenly distributed all over the city. The majority are in a handful of neighborhoods, like this one.

This is Englewood. Police statistics show that it is one of the most dangerous areas of the city. Though, if you're picturing some kind of chaotic, depressing, ghetto high school in the middle of all of that, Harper is anything but. Amidst boarded up houses and vacant lots, it is a four story, yellow brick building. The grounds are neat and beautiful. The halls, walls, classrooms, cafeteria-- everything is well taken care of. There's order. Between passing periods, the halls are kept clear. It's clean. You can tell the staff likes the kids. Even the security guards-- there are 16 for a student body of just 550 or so. They joke around.

Man

Let's go, freshmen! Let's go! I have fresh meat. (LAUGHS) You can't be sleepy already. It just started.

Ira Glass

Principal Sanders sets the tone for the building. And just listen here to how she informs a girl who showed up on the first day of school out of uniform that the girl can never do that again.

Leonetta Sanders

Oh, my God! You look so cute! Too bad you can't wear that white shirt. But you all look so cute!

Ira Glass

That's classic Harper. You're reprimanded, but with love. One consequence of all the violence last year, Ms. Sanders and other administrators had to spend a certain amount of this first day back to school trying to convince worried parents that it is safe to send their kids back to school here this year. None of last year's shootings actually happened at the school.

Chad Adams

Can I talk to him on the phone?

Mother

Nuh uh. He don't want to come back.

Ira Glass

This is assistant principal Chad Adams and a mom who wants to transfer her son out.

Chad Adams

He doesn't want to come back? But he's been with us for two years.

Mother

I know.

Chad Adams

And we've put so much time and work and love into him. We want him to stay.

Mother

I know.

Chad Adams

And what was the reason? You told me that grandmother said something. What was she saying again.

Mother

She said she don't want him up here because the fighting and the stuff going on.

Chad Adams

Is she worried about the killings?

Mother

Yep. That what she worried about.

Chad Adams

And the people shooting at everyone?

Mother

Yeah.

Chad Adams

Yeah. So even if we've got someone to come to his house every morning and pick him up, like, if I drove over to his house every morning and picked him up, you still wouldn't want him to come?

Ira Glass

This is not, by the way, a theoretical question. Administrators do pick up some kids and drive them to school. Here at our radio show, we first heard about Harper this summer, when our colleague, Linda Lutton, who covers education at our home station, WBEZ in Chicago, did a story about the death of a 16-year-old sophomore named Shakaki Asphy, who played on the school's basketball team.

Shakaki was shot while standing on a porch talking to a friend near the end of the school year. Her murder was such a blow to the staff and the students that even Principal Sanders-- who's been at the school for years and is definitely not easy to rattle-- even Principal Sanders said that it made her wonder if she could continue doing this work. She showed Linda this list that she'd been keeping, for a year at that point, of all the kids who had been shot from Harper. Shakaki was number 27.

All of us here knew, of course, about the murders in Chicago. But when we heard Linda's story about this one school with 27 shootings, at that point, in a year, we thought this is a school that knows this problem in a way that most of us around the country never see, don't know. And we wondered, what if we spent a long period of time there, to witness what they're witnessing?

Harper agreed to let us send three reporters in, starting at the beginning of this school year. And they gave us unusual access for more than five months, for a full semester. When violence struck, they let us record the administrators as the administrators jumped into action.

They let us into private, difficult meetings with parents and students. And we watched the staff try to recover from the terrible year that they had last year and try to make this year different. As you'll hear, they devote incredible energy to trying to keep their students alive.

So much happened that we could not fit this all into one program. So what we're going to do is we're going to start our story at Harper this week. And we're going to continue it next week.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. I hope you'll stay with us.

So our reporters today and next week are Linda Lutton, who covers Chicago schools for our home station, WBEZ, like I said; Ben Calhoun, from our staff, who used to be a Chicago reporter; and Alex Kotlowitz, who's written many times over the years about violence in Chicago and its effect on kids growing up there. And let's just start. Let's start by jumping ahead a little ways into the school year for Act One, Rules to Live By, from Linda.

Linda Lutton

Two weeks after that first day assembly, Assistant Principal Chad Adams, the same guy you heard trying to convince a mom to re-enroll her kid in Harper this year, is in the hallways. He spots a sophomore, a new kid, a transfer student named Jordan.

Chad Adams

So you were at Millburn? Did you know--

Linda Lutton

Mr. Adams tells Jordan he needs to talk to him in his office. There have been changes in his schedule, he says, though this is just a ploy. They go to his office. And Mr. Adams gets to the real purpose. He asks Jordan where he lives.

Jordan

69th and Loomis.

Chad Adams

69th and Loomis?

Jordan

Yeah.

Chad Adams

So that way? Who's on that block?

Jordan

Like, what you mean?

Chad Adams

You know. Who on that block? Who runs that block?

Linda Lutton

What Mr. Adams is trying to figure out is what gang Jordan is affiliated with and what gangs he might potentially have conflicts with here at Harper. Without hesitating, Jordan tells Mr. Adams he's affiliated with a gang called Face World. And they're friendly with a half dozen other gangs. They're cliqued up, kids say.

Jordan

Well, we cliqued up with J-Town right there on 69th.

Chad Adams

Who else are y'all cliqued up with?

Jordan

Hoodville, Low Block, Hit Squad, COB. We got a lot. A lot of people want to get into it with us, though, I ain't gonna lie.

Chad Adams

I know. Your name was hot last spring. What was going on last spring?

Jordan

It's a war zone around there. I can't lie. It's just a war zone.

People like us-- we so close to each other, it don't make no sense. 'Cause we right-- our opposition is right down the street. Literally, it's on the next block.

So, like, we on 70th and Rockwell, and they on 71st and Rockwell. That's how close we is. So--

Linda Lutton

They talk about this for 15 minutes. And what's remarkable is how matter of fact it is. They might as well be talking about what bus Jordan needs to take home or where the cafeteria is. There's no shame to admitting your gang affiliation. It's nothing you have to keep a secret. Mr. Adams has one more goal for this meeting.

Chad Adams

All right. So I haven't met you yet because you weren't here last year. But I'm Mr. Adams. I'm the assistant principal. This is my office.

All right, so can we make an agreement today that if something happens in the block, or something happens in the school, that you'll-- that you'll come to me to help you fix the problem? And we'll use this?

Linda Lutton

Adams points to his head.

Chad Adams

Look at me, Mr. Rogers. We'll use this, instead of this.

Linda Lutton

He points to his fists.

Chad Adams

Can we make an agreement?

Jordan

See, I make an agreement, like, if something happened in school. Like, if something happened in school, I would probably come to you and tell you, like, what was going down. But outside is a whole different story.

Chad Adams

And I'm not saying that I'm going to be able to help you with your problems outside the school. I'm just saying if something happens on the block that might lead back into the building, that you'll come to me so we can fix it here, so you don't have to worry about it here.

Jordan

Um, I'll try to keep my worrying on the outside and might keep that agreement. But it is probably going to be hard, though.

Chad Adams

OK. You know, and that's OK. I know it's going to be hard. It's not an easy agreement.

Jordan

If it's-- if it's-- if I get into a problem with that [INAUDIBLE], if I get into a problem with one of [INAUDIBLE] people in this school, I ain't going to lie. I'm probably not even going to come here. I'll probably just go and do it right there, 'cause the problem escalated. 'Cause ain't no talking with them.

Linda Lutton

Maybe you think you have an idea of how street gangs operate. Crips and Bloods, people and folks, controlling huge swaths of the city, shooting it out over drug territory, a single gang leader controlling thousands of members, a strictly enforced hierarchy branching out underneath him, with gang colors and hats tilted to the right or left. For this hour, forget all that.

The gangs in the Englewood neighborhood today are not those gangs. There's no central leader, no hierarchy, no colors. The fights aren't over drug territory. In fact, lots of these gangs aren't even selling drugs.

They're different gangs with different rules. These rules apply absolutely to boys. Girls get slightly more leeway. Rule number one, look at a map.

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.

When you ask kids or cops or school staff how it got like this, they'll tell you that at one point this whole area was controlled pretty much by a single gang, the Gangster Disciples. But, and this is how most people tell this part of the story, Chicago police have been so effective at locking up the big gang leaders that the hierarchy of those gangs has crumbled. And that's left a lot of room for newcomers.

Your gang might control nothing more than the block you live on. In Harper's attendance area alone, which is a couple square miles, there are more than 15 gangs, also known as cliques, sets, factions, or crews. Some don't have anyone in charge.

But they do have guns. That's what every kid has told me. Otherwise, why would you call yourself a gang, they say.

Aaron Washington is a police officer assigned to Harper. He's there seven hours a day, seems to know every kid in the school. He says that for protection, for survival, kids walk to school with the kids in their clique, often through enemy territory.

So I ask him, what if I'm a kid, and I really don't want any part of this gang stuff. How can I avoid it?

Aaron Washington

You can't. It's not going to happen.

Linda Lutton

He says it used to be possible to be neutral, what they called a neutron.

Aaron Washington

There is no neutrons anymore. 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 going to come to school with them. They don't have a choice.

Linda Lutton

I can hardly believe that a Chicago police officer is telling me this, admitting that kids don't have a choice about being gang affiliated. I've never heard police talk like this. Later I ask Officer Washington if he'll get in trouble for saying this. I mean, aren't cops supposed to just tell kids, hey, don't join a gang?

Aaron Washington

I'll put it like this. I'm not saying it is OK to be in a gang. And I'm not saying I approve of it, I agree with it.

If I could take them all, and say, hey, look here, ain't no gangs, you know? I'd do that. But this ain't a fairy tale.

Linda Lutton

And this is the point. Gangs aren't the bad kids in the corner here. They're the defining social structure in the school. It's who you sit with at lunch, the kids you say hi to in the hallway. It's the water everybody swims in.

Assistant Principal Adams guesses that fewer than 10% of Harper students are actually gangbanging, that is, active on the block, involved in crime. He thinks all the rest of the kids in the school are just caught up by where they live.

OK. So rule number one is know your geography. Rule number two, never walk by yourself.

[STREET NOISE]

One day at dismissal, I thought I saw a freshman walking home alone.

Linda Lutton

I stopped you because you were walking by yourself.

But I was wrong.

Larnell

We're walking with them.

Linda Lutton

Larnell now pointed over his shoulder at a couple of girls about 15 feet back.

Linda Lutton

So you're actually walking with the girls back there?

Larnell

Yeah, I always walk with people home.

Linda Lutton

What's the advantage?

Larnell

It's not trying to get jumped on and shot. 'Cause they be fighting and shooting up there almost every day. Because won't nobody mess with somebody in a group, walking in a group.

Linda Lutton

And that's true. But it's complicated, because of rule number three. Rule number three, never walk with someone else.

See, walking in a group can send its own message. If you're with a group of boys in Englewood-- on your porch, walking home from school-- you're highlighting your affiliation, which makes you more of a target. It's a huge catch-22 for kids in this neighborhood. If you walk alone, you risk being jumped. If you walk with someone else, you risk being labeled as a gang member and being shot.

Rule number four, don't use the sidewalk. Every day at dismissal, kids drift out of Harper High School and walk along Wood Street, actually, right down the middle of Wood Street. It's a strange scene.

Cars drive slowly, waiting for students to move out of the way. One teacher told me that when she first arrived at Harper, she thought this was just plain hooliganism, the teenagers taking over. One afternoon, a girl named Alex explained, that's not it at all.

Alex

We feel safer like this. For some reason, we just feel safe like that. We never like to walk past trees and stuff. There's too much stuff going on.

Linda Lutton

Too much stuff going on is shorthand here for the shootings, the fights, the craziness. It's better to walk down the middle of the street, where you can keep a broad view of things, and where you have a few more seconds to run if you need to. Rule number five, if they shoot, don't run.

12th grader Antoryio was on the Harper High School football team. In fact, he's one of the best running backs in the entire city of Chicago. On the field, he zips around linemen like they're not even there, cutting and weaving, and then racing for the end zone. Those are skills he purposefully ignores when shot at.

Antoryio Barton

I fall to the ground.

Linda Lutton

That's your strategy?

Antoryio Barton

Yeah, 'cause you run, you'll probably get shot in the back or something like that. So I just fall to the ground. Most people, like, shoot from, like-- say, we, like, in front of my house, they'd shoot from the corner. Or do a drive-by in their cars, so I just fall to the ground.

Linda Lutton

OK. By now you may be wondering, if these gangs aren't fighting over drug territory, what are the shootings about? That brings us to rule number six. Rule number six, you can be shot for reasons big and small.

If you ask the police or school officials or kids what the shootings are about, they'll mention girls, money owed. There was a paintball incident that led to real guns going off. Petty stuff, like losing a fist fight, he-said she-said arguments, often they'll tell you a shooting is over nothing.

Retaliation for earlier shootings is a big reason for getting shot. Shootings can ping pong back and forth between rival gangs for years. Of course, you can also be shot for walking off your block.

And finally, rule number seven, never go outside. When I ask kids for advice about staying alive in this neighborhood, they told me the best advice was to stay away from your block as long as possible every day. Get involved in something at school so you can stay as late as they let you.

When you do go home, don't leave the house. Don't even go on the porch. If you want to see the lengths you have to go to not be part of the gang, you should meet a senior named Deonte. Being anti-gang is Deonte's entire identity.

He's an outspoken Christian. He holds Bible study in his living room. Other kids come to him for advice, a role he wholly embraces. He's poised to be the valedictorian. When you talk to Deonte, you get a sense of what it takes to stay away from the gangs.

Linda Lutton

Do you ever go out, like just around the neighborhood?

Deonte

Oh, no. Not at all, and in a way, that can be bad as well. Because that's when depression is easy to set in. That took a hold on me, 'cause I've been in the house for about three years. I've been staying in the house a lot.

Linda Lutton

Do you feel lonely?

Deonte

At times. At times, I feel lonely. At times, I would want to have some friends. 'Cause I'm not really friends with anybody.

Linda Lutton

If you think about high school, how important friends are during that time, imagine going through that with your whole goal being to avoid your school's social structure completely for four years. It's an incredibly high price to steer clear of the violence. It's a price most teenagers anywhere would find almost impossible to pay.

Ira Glass

Linda Lutton. Act Two, a Tiny Office on the Second Floor. So the place in the school where staff deals most directly with the effects of the violence on students is the social work office, as you'd kind of expect. Alex Kotlowitz has this story about one of the students that the social workers took under their wings.

Alex Kotlowitz

I first met Devonte, a junior, back on the first day of school when he and his mom came in for a meeting with Principal Sanders. Devonte was a Harper student who had been temporarily transferred and was now just returning. Sanders was happy to see him, but everyone seemed a little tense, a little careful. I couldn't tell exactly what was going on.

Leonetta Sanders

And we're not going to push you to get into any activities. Just, you know, you take your time right now. Just get back into the swing of school. 'Cause we starting a whole fresh slate here.

Alex Kotlowitz

It was only later that I learned the full story. That last February, Devonte accidentally shot and killed his 14-year-old brother. After the shooting, the Harper staff had been concerned that kids might taunt Devonte, so he was transferred to a different school.

Now that he was back, a few weeks into school, he's been stopping by the school social worker's office two or three times a day to meet with one of the social workers there, Crystal Smith.

Crystal Smith

Close that door for me, [INAUDIBLE]. Because you know, I don't what people, you know, walking by, all up in our conversation and stuff, you know?

Devonte

Mhm.

Crystal Smith

Is that OK?

Alex Kotlowitz

The shooting happened last winter, after school. Devonte says his brother had somehow gotten his hands on an old handgun, which neither of them thought worked. In their third floor apartment, they both handled the weapon. While Devonte was holding it, it somehow went off.

A judge later ruled it an accident-- reckless discharge of a firearm. Devonte's brother Damion died an hour later in the hospital. Devonte hasn't had any intensive counseling since the shooting. So for Crystal, establishing a relationship with him is tricky.

Crystal Smith

What you eat for lunch? How you going to not let me share it with you?

Devonte

I ate, um, chicken patties.

Alex Kotlowitz

To make him feel safe enough with her to talk about his feelings, and most importantly about his guilt, she often bounces around in their meetings from totally superficial things, like lunch, to more substantive subjects, like Devonte smoking marijuana. He tells Crystal he hasn't smoked in a while. And she does an impression of him when he's high.

Crystal Smith

When you're smoking, you be, like, (SLURRING) what's up, Miss Smith? I'd be like, dude, you know you high, right? (SLURRING) Naw, I'm straight. [LAUGHS] That'd be you. You don't even be remembering that we done had a conversation, do you?

Devonte

No.

Crystal Smith

It's OK, though.

Devonte

I know-- I do, I do remember this one, though.

Crystal Smith

What?

Devonte

To my moms, who might throw my little brother's bed away, and I don't want her to throw it away and stuff.

Alex Kotlowitz

He's worried his mom might throw away his little brother's bed.

Crystal Smith

So we talked about-- can I say this? It helps him to sleep at night if he sleeps in his brother's bed. But his mother was contemplating throwing the bed away. And so I had told him that if I needed to, I would call her and let her know why it's important for him to be able to, you know, keep the bed. Right?

Devonte

Mhm.

Crystal Smith

You still with me?

Devonte

Yeah, I'm with you.

Crystal Smith

If it's too much, you just say, I'm done.

Devonte

Nah, it ain't too much.

Crystal Smith

OK.

Alex Kotlowitz

The day after his brother's funeral, Devonte showed up at Harper wearing a t-shirt with a picture of his brother on it. There were food stains on the shirt, leading Crystal to believe he'd probably slept in it. Crystal says before the shooting, Devonte barely came to school. He was aggressive and surly with the staff.

But here he was, the day after burying his brother. And Crystal realized that Devonte needed to be at Harper, that he needed her. She's still just at the beginning of figuring out what she can do for Devonte. He's cracked the door, she told me, but it's the size of a mouse hole.

I spent most of my time at Harper in the social work office. Crystal has a caseload of 55 kids, each of whom struggles with a learning disability or some kind of emotional issue. Another part-time social worker and a school psychologist also have a caseload of kids. But they make strong personal connections with lots of Harper students, not just those they're assigned to. And more often than not, because of some violent incident.

Harper, of course, has just come off this horribly violent year. And I guess the question I had, and honestly, the question that the social workers ask themselves is, can they make a difference?

[SCHOOL HALL CHATTER]

Crystal Smith

Hello! How are you? [INAUDIBLE]. Hi, Shari!

Alex Kotlowitz

Crystal is in the halls for every passing period with a constant patter of positivity.

Crystal Smith

I'm so proud of you. I see you trying hard. Keep it up, OK? I'm so proud of you! Go, go, go! So you won't be late. Go, go, go! Y'all moving around, right?

Student

Yeah.

Crystal Smith

Thank you so much. Let me appreciate you in advance.

Alex Kotlowitz

I appreciate you in advance, a phrase I've never heard anyone use before, is one of Crystal's trademarks.

Crystal Smith

Do you have your headphones in while you're talking to me?

Terrell

I'm not-- it's low.

Crystal Smith

Is it off? Could you take them out so I won't feel like I'm being disrespected?

Terrell

I'm not.

Crystal Smith

Thank you so much.

Terrell

It ain't nothing playing.

Crystal Smith

I appreciate you in advance. Terrell, how was your summer?

Terrell

It was OK, safe.

Crystal Smith

Safe?

Terrell

Yeah.

Crystal Smith

That's great. You're the only person that said that to me. That means something to me. I'm glad it was safe. Good morning, gentlemen. Good morning.

Alex Kotlowitz

Even when a kid characterizes his summer not as fun or relaxing, but as safe, Crystal sees the bright side. I've seen her practically tackle students to tell them, you're a valuable person. You matter. When she's doling out advice, some of the kids laughingly call it Mom Patrol. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the kids see past her perkiness. Because she's really a force.

Crystal Smith

I thank you for being to class on time. Thank you! I love you!

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Student

I'm up out of here. I'm fixing to go to class.

Alex Kotlowitz

It's six weeks later, late September, and the social work office is packed. All times of day, kids pile into the social work office, a crowded, windowless room stuffed with three desks, a filing cabinet, and a paper shredder. So many kids that at times you have to jostle for a place to stand.

Some of the kids come because their educational plans mandate social work visits. And others come just because they like talking with Crystal and Anita Stewart, the school's other social worker. Devonte is often in the office.

Before the incident last February where Devonte accidentally shot his 14-year-old brother, he didn't have much of a relationship with Crystal or Anita. But now, they're really getting close. Earlier in the year, Devonte had told them he wasn't sleeping well. And today, Anita and Crystal want to talk about it.

Anita Stewart

So what about sleeping and all of that, Devonte? Are you sleeping OK?

Devonte

Yeah.

Crystal Smith

What you do at night to help you though?

Devonte

To go to sleep? I take some Nyquil.

Crystal Smith

Oh, you still taking Nyquil?

Devonte

Man, I take it on a regular base. 'Cause I need to go to sleep, man.

Crystal Smith

So we need to talk about--

Devonte

I need to sleep tight.

Anita Stewart

What happens if you don't take the Nyquil?

[TELEPHONE RINGING]

Devonte

I don't go to sleep.

Crystal Smith

Can I ask you a question? What are the thoughts that you have when you get ready to go to sleep?

Devonte

None.

Crystal Smith

You having some kind thoughts that you're trying to escape. So that that way--

Devonte

I just be up thinking about stuff.

Crystal Smith

What? One thought that you be thinking about?

Devonte

One, my brother. I be thinking about a lot of stuff.

Alex Kotlowitz

He's thinking about his brother. Devonte tells Crystal and Anita that he looks at pictures of Damion, his brother, every night before going to bed. He shows them the pictures on his phone. One is a school portrait. Another is of Damion in his casket, dressed in a blue suit and a crisp white shirt.

Devonte

He look like me in this casket, like I'm asleep.

Crystal Smith

Mama's got it in her phone, too.

Devonte

You saw it in her phone?

Crystal Smith

'Cause she showed it to me. Remember, we had the meeting?

Anita Stewart

Devonte, do you feel like your family is supporting you with this?

Devonte

With what?

Anita Stewart

What happened to your brother?

Devonte

Nah, don't nobody talk about it. Don't nobody talk or nothing. Don't nobody say nothing.

Anita Stewart

Just everybody just go around like it just didn't happen?

Devonte

Mhm.

Anita Stewart

Because you know it happened, because you look at the picture every night.

Devonte

Yeah.

Alex Kotlowitz

Devonte also has a video of his brother. He huddles with Crystal and Anita, watching it on his phone. It's of three boys, clearly high, hanging out in a kitchen, cracking jokes and laughing. Damion's off to one side, sitting on the floor.

Crystal Smith

This is your brother here, right?

Devonte

Yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

Recorded Male Voice

[INAUDIBLE]. I'm talking about you. [INAUDIBLE].

Devonte

He was a little strong little boy.

Crystal Smith

Yeah, he look, you could tell.

Recorded Male Voice

[INAUDIBLE]. Dumb bitches.

[LAUGHTER]

Alex Kotlowitz

Crystal and Anita are hoping to start a trauma group with Devonte and three other boys at Harper, who are also struggling because of the violence. Devonte's noncommittal. Crystal seems almost desperate to get Devonte to see the importance of talking about his experience.

Crystal Smith

Can I just tell you-- can I say that again? At some point, though, because you are a junior, and we only got one more year, we going to have to start being able to talk about that, so that that way, we can start helping you get through the process of that.

Anita Stewart

It's something [INAUDIBLE].

Crystal Smith

You going to have to feel safe somewhere to talk about it.

Devonte

I feel safe wherever I'm at.

Alex Kotlowitz

I feel safe wherever I'm at, he says.

Crystal Smith

I'm talking about the stuff with your brother. I'm talking about the stuff that make you take the Nyquil at night, that you not talking to nobody about.

Anita Stewart

If you feel closer [INAUDIBLE].

Crystal Smith

That's the weight that you have to-- do you know what it's like to carry weight?

[LAUGHS]

Crystal Smith

No, no, for real. Don't nobody know every day you feel like this. And it's just, like, can't nobody see it. But then, I can't-- you know what I'm saying? I see it, and I know it.

But then, I don't know if you ready-- you see what I'm saying--

Mhm.

Crystal Smith

--to help get some of it off. I understand-- I'm saying I'm with you on what the weight feels like.

Ms. Grant, first, I just want to check with you and just see how you doing.

Ms. Grant

I'm fine. I'm all right.

Crystal Smith

Doing all right?

Ms. Grant

Yeah, taking it one day at a time.

Crystal Smith

That's all you can do.

Ms. Grant

Yep.

Alex Kotlowitz

One day after school in the last week of September, it's report card day at Harper. And Devonte's mom, Ms. Grant, is the first parent in the building. Crystal makes a point of seeking her out and asks if they can sit and talk at a table in the cafeteria. Anita joins them. Devonte is actually doing reasonably well. He's getting B's and C's in all of his classes, except for music, which he's failing. These are his best grades since he began high school.

Crystal Smith

I want to tell you just how first, impressed I am with Devonte's academic and social, emotional growth, like, since the accident happened.

Ms. Grant

He came a long way.

Crystal Smith

He has a really, really, Mother, come a long way. Like, he is so much more open with me now. And I just want you to know what we're going to continue to work on, which is the guilt that he feels about the accident.

Ms. Grant

Mhm.

Alex Kotlowitz

On the night of the shooting, Ms. Grant was sitting in her car outside of her building. Devonte was with Damion in the third floor apartment, their sister in another room. After the gun went off, Devonte sprinted downstairs to his mom, yelling, Mama, call an ambulance. I accidentally shot Damion.

Ms. Grant says she ran upstairs and saw Damion on the floor, no blood, just not moving. Ms. Grant says the police held her in the apartment while the ambulance took Damion to the hospital. He died before she arrived. Ms. Grant was only able to spend a little bit of time with Damion's body before she was told she was needed at the police station. Since Devonte was a minor, his mom had to be present for his questioning.

I had met privately with Ms. Grant a week or so before the report card meeting with Crystal. She told me that an autopsy report concluded that Damion had been shot in the chest. In our interview then, as in the meeting with Crystal, Ms. Grant seemed to vacillate between being certain the shooting was a complete accident, and then being not so certain.

Ms. Grant

I can't turn my back on Devonte because Devonte my child, too. Being angry at him is not going to bring Damion back.

Crystal Smith

Right.

Ms. Grant

You know, I feel-- I know that they wouldn't hurt each other like that. That's one thing I do know. Even though, you know, even-- you still don't know what happened. Even though I really, really, truly don't know what happened. You know, the autopsy report say it's one thing, and my heart say I don't know.

Alex Kotlowitz

Ms. Grant tells Crystal she knows she's hurt Devonte's feelings since Damion's death, and she feels bad about it. She says the night of the funeral, the adults went to a bar. When she got back to the apartment, Devonte overheard her saying, I believe Devonte shot my baby. She didn't know he was listening.

Ms. Grant

He got up and he slammed the door. He text me, I'm going to be with my brother. Forget all of y'all. I ain't do nothing to my brother to hurt my brother. And I felt so bad 'cause I-- he had-- it was about 3:00 in the morning. And he left. I ain't do nothing to my brother. I'm going where my brother is. You know, he kind of scared me.

Then I text him back, go on ahead. You grown anyway. So? Go on ahead. You know, I text him back that.

But he was mad. He was mad at me for that. Y'all thinking I hurt Damion. What makes y'all think I hurt my brother?

Alex Kotlowitz

I'm going to state the obvious, but life at home for Devonte has got to be really, really hard. Ms. Grant, who works part-time in food service at a local Naval base, says that many days she cries alone in her room. She says Devonte's older sister, who lives with the family, won't talk to Devonte anymore. At one point, Ms. Grant told Crystal, the house was like hell.

Devonte has basically two places to escape to-- the streets or school. And on the streets, Devonte made clear to Crystal and to me, it's hard to relax, to let your guard down. He hangs with a lot of older guys, he says. And just a few weeks before this, a friend was shot right in front of him. So that really leaves just school-- more specifically, this office-- as a place where he can be himself and try to move on.

Ira Glass

Alex Kotlowitz. We'll return to Devonte next week, when our story on Harper continues for a second hour. A lot happens to Devonte as the year unfolds. Coming up in today's show, homecoming, and a game that is even bigger than homecoming. That's in a minute.

Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

This American Life with Ira Glass. This is the first of two hours that we are bringing you from Harper High School in Chicago, where we had three reporters this school year. Last year, Harper had eight students murdered and 21 others wounded by gun violence.

These were current and recent students. We include recent students in these numbers, because as you'll see, the kids who drop out or transfer away are still connected to the kids who go to Harper. So when they are shot or something happens to them, it can have a huge impact on the school. We've arrived at Act Three of our program.

Act Three, Game Plan. So we pick up our story right now at the beginning of October, homecoming week. The football team is something that is going very, very right at Harper High School. They are 5 and 0 at this point in the year. Though, of course, this still is Harper. What happens in the neighborhood still affects the team.

When we started reporting here in the school we expected to find some football players who had been touched by gun violence. We really did not anticipate answers like this next one that Linda got.

Linda Lutton

Who do you know in football who has been either shot or shot at?

Rodney Jackson

Probably the whole team except freshmen and sophomore.

Antoryio Barton

Yeah, I think everybody was shot at since my four years being there. Yeah, everybody on the team.

Ira Glass

That's number 11, junior Rodney Jackson, and number 4, Antoryio Barton. A player named Sandillio Wright was shot at one day and then played a game the next day. Harper's quarterback Kwame Ware was actually hit a few years back, shot in the leg.

One of this year's recruits had a bullet go in the front of his leg and come out the back. He's slower now, he says. But he can still cut.

About half the kids on the team are affiliated with one gang. There are five or six other gangs represented on the team, some of them opposition. But football actually seems to be the one place at Harper where everybody truly puts those rivalries aside. Ben Calhoun was at Harper for homecoming week.

Ben Calhoun

At this point in the school year, Harper had been pretty violence free. There had been some fights, some big ones. But week after week was going by without a shooting. This was something that people, especially staff, they talked about it in this careful way, like they didn't want to jinx it.

The big events of homecoming week, the dance and the game, were on Friday. Thursday afternoon, every student's in the school's bleachers for a pep rally-- cheerleaders, DJ in the front, playing songs that the students dance to, and the staff occasionally feels uncomfortable to.

[MUSIC - T-PAIN, "BOOTY WURK"]

(RAPPING) Now let me see that booty work, booty work, booty boo boo booty work. Booty work.

This season, Harper's not just undefeated. They've been demolishing other schools-- scores like 46 to 0, 47 to 0. They're good, really good.

Woman

All right! All right!

Ben Calhoun

Last year, Harper went to the Chicago Public school championship, a real feat for a school that's so tiny. They were up against a Chicago sports Goliath, Simeon High School, a school known for producing professional athletes.

The day of the championship, Simeon had four times as many players suited up for the game. Harper's roster is so small just about everybody has to play both offense and defense. Harper lost that game. But they came so close, people are psyched for a second chance.

Pep Rally Announcer 1

And we know the football team tomorrow is going to whoop a little butt on Marshall's!

[CHEERING]

Ben Calhoun

The team runs in one player at a time, and eventually, they get to a senior, a popular kid named Damoni Ware, who goes by the nickname, "Money."

Pep Rally Announcer 1

Number 2, Damoni Ware!

[CHEERING]

Ben Calhoun

And Damoni runs out, like everybody else, like a high school kid on a good day. Then just a couple of minutes later, Money's walking out to the front again. This time, it's because he's one of four candidates for Homecoming King.

Pep Rally Announcer 2

Damoni Ware and Joshua Meyer!

Damoni Ware

Josh was walking up that way. I mean, he was a contestant for Homecoming King. And when I was walking up there, they call his name right after mine. And he told me what happened, like, he was nice to me. He said it out loud. He wasn't trying to whisper it or nothing. He just said it in his regular tone of voice. He said, Little James just got shot.

Ben Calhoun

Money told us about this later. About how, at the rally, as he stood there with his friend, Josh, Josh was on the phone relaying news about another friend of theirs named James Williams. James had been shot just a few blocks from Harper, meaning probably about the time Money was running under the cheerleaders pompoms, someone was shooting at his friend.

Damoni Ware

He live in this house right here.

Ben Calhoun

Money actually lives across the street from James. Standing next to his house, Money can point to James's front door.

Damoni Ware

And this one right there, you see the house with its lights on? And then it's this-- it's this house next to it. And they live in that house right there with the big brown porch. Yeah, he live in that house. His name Little James.

Ben Calhoun

James Williams, the kid with the big brown porch, the kid who'd been shot during the pep rally, he used to go to Harper. But he hadn't been there this year. Back on the day of the pep rally, minutes after the shooting, the first details coming in were hazy-- just that James had been taken to the hospital, and so far he was still alive.

There was already speculation about who was involved and about possible retaliation by Sixth Ward, the gang that controls the block where James and Money live. Money remembers that, as he left the pep rally, and he went to the last practice on Thursday, before the big game on Friday, he wasn't thinking about the game anymore or homecoming. He was thinking about his friend.

Damoni Ware

I didn't know-- I didn't know if he was OK or not. So that had me, like, kind of messing up in practice. Yeah. That threw off my whole day of practice.

Like, I was-- I wasn't really running. I was, like, tip toeing. Wasn't really trying to make a tackle, trying to make a play. So I was trying to worry about was he OK.

Leonetta Sanders

We don't know yet. He was up at the gas station on 67th and Damen, and we just got word that, you know, a former student was shot. So right now, he's in critical condition.

Ben Calhoun

After school on Thursday, while the football team's practicing, word's spreading about the shooting. Principal Sanders is trying to gather information. And when I find her, she's in the parking lot trying to figure out the school's response.

Leonetta Sanders

And another thing that didn't look good-- three different gangs that came out the door, and they just kind of took off running.

Ben Calhoun

You mean when they just came out of school here?

Leonetta Sanders

So they came out, went to the parking lot, and they just took off-- three different groups. For what, we don't know. So that's another indication that something's going on.

Ben Calhoun

Sanders' concern is fallout from all this. The homecoming game and the dance are scheduled for the next day. They'll big school events, events where kids from other schools will be, events where security is a challenge. Sanders was worried that James Williams was just the beginning.

Leonetta Sanders

Definitely-- we have a dance tomorrow. So that's going to have a major effect, especially when they find out exactly who the shooter was. Yeah, that might have a grave impact on whether or not we even have a dance.

Ben Calhoun

Harper staff doesn't just struggle to protect their students from the violence in the neighborhood. They also try to protect what they see as a student's just normal high school experience, things like Homecoming and clubs and prom. Sanders said it was for these reasons that the idea of canceling the dance-- it really bothered her. But she also knew she might have to.

Leonetta Sanders

Good morning, Harper staff members. At this time, I need all the members for the AAR to report to the Mellon room. Once again, all members for the AAR, please report to the Mellon room at this time.

Ben Calhoun

And do students know what that is when they hear it?

Leonetta Sanders

Not really. They don't really know.

Ben Calhoun

Friday morning, the day after the shooting, the day of the homecoming game and dance-- this meeting that Sanders is paging people to is an AAR, short for After Action Review, the school's main meeting to figure out how to handle James Williams' shooting. The name AAR actually comes from the military. A couple of years ago, Chicago Public school officials were visiting at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to research military training tools, tools they might use to prepare people working in the city's roughest schools.

They came across the AAR, the Army's tool for analyzing events, for assessing damage, compiling information, and trying to figure out how to respond. At most schools, this situation-- a former student shot, the threat of more possible shootings-- even schools that have plans for these sorts of crises rarely have to use them. And if they end up in a situation like this, they scramble through it.

A district administrator told me, think about it. The natural response for a school after a shooting is to go into panic and to grieve, and then to hope that it never happens again. That's normal. And so when the Chicago schools first brought the AAR in from Fort Leavenworth and suggested it to Harper, some people said it felt wrong, like they'd be planning for students to be shot.

But the staff at Harper knew it would be better to have procedures and a plan to contain the damage. That's the AAR.

Leonetta Sanders

Marcel, Coach, any word on how James is doing?

Man

No.

Leonetta Sanders

OK. Did he have surgery yesterday, or you don't know?

Man

I don't know.

Ben Calhoun

Harper's AAR meeting is held first thing the day after the shooting. One of the first parts of it is just whiteboarding the social and family relationships of the victim to see who could and would be affected and to consider how.

Leonetta Sanders

OK. So we all know James was shot yesterday right when were getting out, member of Sixth Ward. So I had heard stories about his brother, Jaman, in the neighborhood. Anybody got any word on how he's doing, or--

Ben Calhoun

The group includes all the deans of the school-- social workers, the football coach, guidance counselors, the psychologist, about two dozen people all together. And the conversation moves pretty fast. They summarize the information they've been able to gather. They list kids with connections to the three gangs involved.

Leonetta Sanders

So we already know, number one, that we need to pull all those guys. Can we name them?

[SCHOOL BELL RINGING]

Who are they?

Ben Calhoun

People rattle off names around the room, kids that'll be pulled out of class later.

Leonetta Sanders

Any freshmen?

Ben Calhoun

The school just wants to ask them what's going on, what might happen, and to get them out of the building, especially at dismissal time, when things could get dangerous. Money, the football player, James's friend from across the street, they want to ask him what's been happening on the block. They talk about following what kids are saying online and who will do that. A faculty member named Marcel Smith says the students have realized that the school has been monitoring Facebook. They've stopped posting stuff there.

Marcel Smith

And real quick, Principal Sanders, so since they know we on Facebook, everybody's tweeting.

Leonetta Sanders

So we ain't got no tweet account with them? Who got a tweet account? So they've done [INAUDIBLE] our game, now?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Woman

Yeah, they off it.

Leonetta Sanders

They off of Facebook now?

Ben Calhoun

There's also the issue of James's brother. James left Harper the year before, but his younger brother Jamon still attends. He's not in school that day, but they talk about having someone check on him, and also having someone explain to the kids in each of his classes what happened. They talk about the kids who took off running the night before.

Leonetta Sanders

--running down the street.

Ben Calhoun

Also on the table is the issue of homecoming. Sanders is visibly unsure.

Leonetta Sanders

If I have not said this, I probably need to say this. So I need as many people at this dance tonight as possible.

Ben Calhoun

Sanders is married to a Chicago police officer. And so are some other people on staff. Since the previous day, she's been trying to round up off-duty police officers to volunteer as security at the dance. She's also asked Central Office for additional security.

Leonetta Sanders

But yeah, I need as many people tonight as possible. And when we have dances and things like this, no, I can't pay you. But your presence is definitely needed. Because we need people to watch inside so that nothing happens. As well as-- and I usually have the security, the men, standing outside along with police.

Ben Calhoun

As everyone leaves, Sanders tell someone on staff she's worried about security at the homecoming game itself.

Leonetta Sanders

Because my issue is, if they believe the Breeds did that, half of my football team are Breeds.

Woman

Mhm. [INAUDIBLE].

Leonetta Sanders

So you know what I'm saying? It's not like they pat them down at the games. I don't never see them patting nobody down at the game. You know what I'm saying, I'm, like, so that's hard to-- I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.

Ben Calhoun

Just so it's clear, what Principal Sanders is saying is that half of her football players have ties to the gangs who are supposedly behind the shooting. And obviously, that's worrisome. Because they might become targets, and they're at the center of every large school event she has planned in the next 24 hours.

Antoine Reed

OK. You want to talk to 'em or no? Get over here and talk to Mama.

Ben Calhoun

All day long, Harper's staff implements the plan from the AAR meeting. For Coach Antoine Reed and others, that means spending the day gathering information, pulling students out of class. It's an unusual situation-- sending kids home not because they've done anything wrong, but as a matter of prevention. This student here still hadn't quite figured out that he wasn't in trouble.

Antoine Reed

Until I say-- did I ever say you was in trouble? If you are in trouble, who's the first person you think you're going to see? I don't care where you at. I don't care if you on this roof and you get in trouble. The first person you're going to see is me.

You wasn't in trouble. We understand what's going on and that issue is not resolved yet. He's still in the hospital. Everybody is still angry.

And we are not taking any chances, you know what I'm saying? So it's not that you in trouble. It's that we're taking precautionary measures. We know how it's going to look today at the end of the day. Let's not be naive. Me and you live around here.

Male Student

Yeah.

So what is it going to look like at the end of the day? So you're not going to be there in the big picture when it takes place. That's all. So thank me, because you're not going to be able to get in any trouble today. That's what you can do.

Ben Calhoun

Throughout the day, Principal Sanders shores up the security plan for the game and also for the dance. She's disappointed that more Harper staff don't agree to stay late to act as security.

Ben Calhoun

You're not going outside at the end of school today?

Anita Stewart

No, I'm going to go outside and get in my car and go home.

Ben Calhoun

This is social worker Anita Stewart. Anita tells me she won't be staying late. Just like Coach Reed, she'd spent the day talking to kids about what happened, and she's scared. Anita doesn't want to let Harper down, but with a family and kids of her own, she decided she isn't up for it.

Anita Stewart

I'm not going to, you know, go out and stand around. There's too much going on. And I think I got fair warning from the kids to stay out of the neighborhood. And the kids are telling me stay out of the neighborhood. And I'm going to ride with the kids and believe what they're telling me.

Ben Calhoun

This isn't typical for her. Anita spends a lot of time trying to intervene with kids so they don't end up shooting each other. She's constantly going out into the neighborhood around Harper, after school and on weekends, talking kids down from fighting, going to rival cliques and mediating. Reminding everyone, this is stupid. Stop it.

But today, Anita is struggling. She's sitting in her office, trying to deal with the reality that no matter how much she or anyone does, no matter how much they hope, inevitably, there will be more violence.

Anita Stewart

The hardest thing is knowing that something is getting ready to happen, and you can't stop it. That hurts. And it's, like, because you don't know where it's going to happen. And you know that the strike is getting ready to come. But you don't know where it's coming. And it hurts.

[CRYING]

It hurts because they not-- the kids, they're not bad. So you know that something is getting ready to happen, because-- [SNIFFLING] the kids, they tell you, and it's, like, you can't stop it, because you don't know where it's going to happen. And I'm trying to do what I can. [SOBBING]

Ben Calhoun

Just before dismissal, just like Anita feared, there's news of more shooting. A parent and a student were on their way home, and someone fired shots. Nobody was hit, but it looks like it might have been retaliation.

And so the school has to decide what to do next-- cancel the homecoming game, cancel the dance, or risk it. Push back against the violence, and try to preserve a little bit of high school normalcy for the students. Every option they have seems like a bad option. And it's getting late in the day. They have to decide all of this, and they've got to decide soon.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun is one of the producers of our show. What Principal Sanders and the staff decide to do and how their plan works out, whether they contain the violence-- next week, Alex Kotlowitz, Linda Lutton, and Ben Calhoun will be back. They'll pick up our story where we're leaving it off today, with the second half of our story from Harper High School in Chicago. I hope you join us. I appreciate you in advance for that.

Our program was produced today by our senior producer Julie Snyder, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Production help from Phia Bennin. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Original scoring for today's program by the Late Bloomer. Music help from Damian Graf and Rob Geddis. Thanks today to [? Coby ?] Williams, Jens Ludwig, Roseanna Ander, [? Joe ?] Jennings, Michelle Harris, [? Rob ?] [INAUDIBLE], Julie Beer.

And special thanks to, of course, Harper principal Leonetta Sanders, head football coach Maris Carroll, social workers Crystal Smith and Anita Stewart, and the rest of the staff, students, and families at Harper High School for being so generous with their time.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. I don't know, I keep forgetting to wear my belt to work. I don't know. I don't see what the big deal is. He will not let it go.

Leonetta Sanders

We are not selling crack. Pull your pants up. Nobody wants to see the crack of your butt, baby.

Ben Calhoun

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with Part 2. Be there for more stories of This American Life.

PRI, Public Radio International.