Five Chicago Public School (CPS) students were shot and killed in the first two weeks of March, bringing the year’s total to 18.

But amid the media uproar, a critical set of victims has been overlooked; the students left behind, who struggle to lead normal high school lives in a culture of gun violence and death.

The Defender met with a group of 16 and 17-year-old Black male students at John Hope College Prep High School, 5515 South Lowe Ave.

Three years ago, their school went from selective to open enrollment. What followed was a culture seemingly rooted in violence û often occurring right outside the school grounds.

The students, whose names have not been published to protect their privacy, are at best, tense, and at worst, paranoid about their safety.

Their fears are justified given that more than 5,780 students were arrested during the 2006-07 school year. But the total represents a drop from the previous school year when there were 6,970 arrests, according to information supplied by Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

There is an apparent disconnect between what CPS officials said is happening and how the students feel.

“After school, [the violence] kicks off right in front of Hope, and travels up the streetà to Halsted and 51st” said one student.

“It’s a jungle out there. People running through the streets, knocking each other out with sticks, bottles, bricks.”

“You can’t depend on the security guards for safety, because it’s not like they are going to follow you home and make sure you’re safe,” added another.

But CPS CEO Arne Duncan said Monday that violence in the last school year dropped 15 percent, and is down 30 percent this year.

However, these young men have to fend for themselves, ducking through street combat to get home. And the struggle does not end there. The buses they take are also targets of robbery and gang violence.

“Sometimes I get on the bus, and a crowd of gangsters will stop the whole bus. They’ll pull the emergency stop, and start jumping on people, just pulling people off the bus and taking their money,” said one student. “And all the bus driver can do is sit there and wait till it’s over.”

The men and women behind the knives and triggers are not unfamiliar to these young men. Many are kids from the neighborhood, or students from rival schools or gangs.

“A lot of times the students are the gang bangers,” one student said. “Anybody can pull a trigger.”

Duncan said the district is expanding hours at about 150 schools, giving students alternatives to being on the street. And he readily admitted that the district needs to do more than expanding hours and opening schools on Saturdays.

A former Australian resident, Duncan said “I think this country is crazy in terms of guns. During the four years I lived in Australia, we had a mass shooting and the country’s gun laws were changed in three weeks.”

But this is not so in Englewood, where these young men attend school. Many have a premature understanding of death. And some have even prepared themselves for it.

“If I was to die right now I’d be disappointed because I didn’t live that long, but then again I could die with some kind of peace knowing that at least I have knowledge of self. There are so many people dying senselesslyà” one student reflected.

Others were not as optimistic.

“It makes me mad all the time. I stay heated. I’m mad at the world [for letting me live like this.],” one student said.

And some feel completely overlooked by society.

“They want us to kill each other. They want to get rid of all the n _____, and that way we can get back this land. Once they tear all this down, it’s property that they’re going to make money off of,” said one student.

Derrick Johnson, founder of Youth and Family Guidance, an organization that offers grief counseling at CPS schools, said that these responses are typical, and could be even worse.

“Students [who experience trauma] are detached in how they interact with authority. They go against teachers, they can’t follow rules,” he said.

“They’ve constantly seen funerals prepared for children. So they think, “If I’m preparing for a funeral, why should I learn the quadratic equationàwhen I’m not going to be around to use it?””

Fortunately these young men, all members of an advanced sociology class at Hope, have plans to attend college. And right now, are doing all they can to make it out of high school alive.

Meanwhile CPS, according to Duncan is taking some non-traditional steps to promote school safety. One of them is having select students train security guards. Another is students establishing peace council.

He recalled attending an anti-violence rally at Revere School and hearing a youngster say he just wanted to be able to walk to the corner store and be safe. “That shouldn’t be a privilege. That is a right,” Duncan said.

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