After 2009 death, notorious school made turnaround

Updated at: 03/11/2013 1:09 PM
By DON BABWIN

(AP) CHICAGO - A cellphone video showed the attack in grainy but gruesome detail: A mob overwhelmed a South Side teen shortly after he left school, mercilessly kicking and stomping on him, then hitting him in the head with a wooden plank.

Long before Chicago’s latest spasm of gun violence claimed 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, the honors student who was killed not far from President Barack Obama’s home, there was Derrion Albert, another honors student slain in 2009. His killing came to symbolize the dangers facing young people in the nation’s third-largest city.

But if the 16-year-old’s death illustrates how little things have changed since then, it also helps tell a different story _ how one of America’s most notorious schools succeeded in restoring calm and defusing many confrontations. As other districts across the country grapple with security issues, Fenger High School shows how determined school officials curbed violence by deploying "peace circles" and in-school suspensions as much as police and armed guards.

Now those precious gains could be lost because many of the new initiatives were paid for using federal stimulus money that will run out at the end of the school year. The principal has no idea where she will turn for more funding.

"Could things return the way they were?" asked Elizabeth Dozier, the principal who arrived at the school 16 days before the boy was killed. "In a heartbeat."

Despite a tide of violence that led to 500-plus homicides last year in Chicago, the number of "serious misconduct" cases at Fenger fell from 850 in 2010 to just over 200 last year, including fights with injuries, drug and weapon seizures and gang activity. This year, there have been fewer than a dozen arrests _ a fraction of the 200 that occurred in the 2009-10 school year.

That Fenger led the way is all the more remarkable considering the conditions when Dozier arrived two weeks before Albert was killed.

Back then, the campus looked like the set of a movie about out-of-control teens. Despite the daily presence of police, students flashed gang signs that routinely triggered brawls. Some tried to smuggle knives and box cutters inside. And judging by the smell, officers did little to deter students from smoking marijuana on school grounds.

"When I came here, we were like, `Oh, Lord, we’re going to get robbed. Oh no, we’re going to get shot.’ No lie," recalled senior Geneva Harris.

It was in that atmosphere that word spread on Sept. 24, 2009, about building tensions between students from "The Ville," a neighborhood near Fenger, and those from the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex farther away who’d been thrown into Fenger after their old school was turned into a military academy.

By the time the final bell rang, students knew there was going to be a fight. Minutes after it started a few blocks from the school, Albert lay mortally wounded.

When the hallway melees got worse, Dozier started handing out suspensions. Flash a gang sign or shove another kid: Stay home for 10 days. Next, she sought to change the way students dealt with one another, giving them a role in solving their own problems.

Under the umbrella of "restorative justice practices," she launched initiatives that included "peace circles," in which students and staffers meet to discuss an incident or disagreement.

Lee McCollum, who acknowledges he was a gang member when he arrived at Fenger in 2009, served multiple suspensions for fighting. When he sat down in a peace circle with another teen, he thought the process would surely end with the brawl he’d been itching for.

Instead, the two students talked and "found out we were fighting for no reason," said McCollum, who once believed it was only a matter of time before he dropped out. He’s now captain of the basketball team with plans to play next year in college.

Just this year, a shouting match broke out between students from Altgeld Gardens and "the Ville" _ a reminder that the tensions that led to the fatal fight have not entirely disappeared. But the students retreated to a peace circle.

After they apologized to each other, Dozier sent them to the gym to play basketball on teams that included students from both groups.

"I wanted them to see each other as people and not just from the neighborhood," she said. "We haven’t had a flare-up since."

The school also put students on notice that special events such as the prom were no longer open to everyone. Teens would have to earn their way in by attending classes at least 90 percent of the time.

Fenger’s improvements are "a model for the rest of the city," said Jennifer Loudon, the school district’s director of youth developments and positive behavior supports.

"We really point to Fenger as a shining star ... to make sure you pay attention to students’ social and emotional needs."

Because ordering kids to stay home, particularly in troubled neighborhoods, often puts them out on the streets, administrators impose more in-school suspensions. Students are sent to a room apart from their classmates to do schoolwork and write or talk about their behavior.

At the same time, students are watched like never before. Dozier installed a new camera system when she found that the images on the old cameras were too fuzzy to identify participants in the massive fights. Fenger was also the first school in the city to connect its camera system to the police department.

Dozier implemented another kind of surveillance, too. One of her team members created a fake student profile on Facebook and uses it to monitor the kids.

"So we know if something happened on the weekend," she said.

On Monday mornings, Dozier is armed with copies of Facebook pages and asks students about photographs that show them flashing gang signs, threatening other students or holding guns. Once a student was seen holding a bag of marijuana about as proudly as a fisherman might display his latest catch.

"We called his mom and told her about the choices her son is making and connected him to a drug-treatment program for youths," she said.

For its turnaround, the school has attracted national and international attention, with educators from as far away as England coming to visit. A group from Singapore plans to come next month.

Fenger "was so notorious for being such a failing place, and now it is completely changed," said Laura Robell, managing director of programs for New Leaders, a national organization based in New York City that trains urban principals.

At the same time, Dozier is concerned that much of what has been accomplished can unravel.

"I think it would be really easy because nothing has changed out there," she said of the neighborhood. Since Albert’s death, the school has seen seven more of its students die violently.

When the stimulus money is gone, Dozier estimates she will need $800,000 to $900,000 to keep staff essential to her improvement efforts, including reading specialists, counselors, a specialist who oversees the peace circles and advocates who visit students’ homes.

"Those critical things ... won’t be here anymore because there’s no way to pay for them," she said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)