Campus panel tackles youth challenges, violence and gangs

Staff Writer

For many young African American males in Chicago, not being a part of a gang is not an option. At a University of Chicago Institute of Politics panel discussion titled “The Chicagoland Lens: A Look at Chicago Public Schools,” held at the Quadrangle Club Thursday evening, University of Chicago graduate student Christopher Huff explained how he went from a scared kid, to a prison inmate, to a college graduate.

Huff said from 5th through 7th grade he was repeatedly jumped on by gang members in his South Shore neighborhood.

“I had to make a decision. Do I join [a gang] or stay inside all day,” Huff said, who said that he’s an extrovert who wanted to meet new people, so he chose to go outside. “In my neighborhood all of my friends are in gangs so that makes me a part of the gang by affiliation even if I don’t go to any of the services or take part of any of the gang activities.”

The gang that claimed the area around Huff’s neighborhood was different from the one that claimed the area around his school so when the gang around his school threatened to jump on anyone who came to the school from his neighborhood he decided to arm himself.

“I was extremely scared of what would happen if I went to school,” Huff said. “So that made me make an impetuous decision to buy a firearm and take it to school.”
Huff said his decision to bring a gun to school “landed me in jail with up to 92 years in prison.”

That made me have to decide, “Am I going to give up on my life even though the court system is telling me that I am going to be in jail for the rest of it? Or do I grab my Bible, pray and begin to build relationships with my family and the people who are still there with me?”

He chose the latter.

He said he fought his case for two years and got his record expunged and his charges reduced from an adult offense to a juvenile charge of offense.

Huff said his success in the court system was “all due to God’s graces and the hard work of individuals and places like Northwestern Law School Legal clinic, who are taking up cases and making a difference in this city.”

Huff will graduate with a master’s degree this year from the U. of C. School of Social Service Administration.

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The trials and triumphs of Elizabeth Dozier, principal of the embattled Fenger Academy High School in the Roseland neighborhood can be seen on the new CNN series “Chicagoland.”

Just a few weeks after her start at Fenger in 2009, Dozier, who was also on the panel, had to help the school cope with the fatal beating of student Derrion Albert. Since then the school has instated social, emotional and violence prevention programs such as peace circles, peer juries and restorative justice practices.

Dozier said lack of access to people and places outside of the neighborhood, trauma from the violence witnessed and a general sense of hopelessness are some of the effects of poverty that go beyond not having money or food to eat.

“Veterans of war, who also suffer post traumatic stress, have counselors,” Dozier said. “Our neighborhood is also a war zone.”

She said now that the students are participating in peace circles and peer juries they are telling their parents about the experience, and she believes it can also be effective in the neighborhood.

“I had a parent try to come into the school to fight another student,” Dozier said. “Now that same mother came in requesting that several students have a peace circle.”

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Karen Van Ausdal, director of the CPS Office of Social and Emotional Learning, said CPS “now understands that misbehavior is a cry for help.”

She said CPS has moved the issue of school violence and suspension and expulsion from the district’s law office to her department. CPS is also working across its departments to review its student code of conduct policy to determine how it can reduce the number of suspensions and provide intervention instead of expulsions.

Lila Leff, founder of Umoja Student Development Corporation and Michelle Morrison, chief executive officer for Youth Guidance, rounded out the panel, which was moderated by Chicago Tribune reporter Noreen Ahmed-Ullah. Both organizations work with public school to provide social-emotional, mentorship and leadership opportunities for students.