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Teen violence: Chicago incident prompts moving from conversation to action

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the tragic incident of the high school student in Chicago who was killed a few weeks ago.

And I’m sure by now everyone has probably stopped talking about him. It seems to be the way it goes.

Jon and Kate’s latest scandal? You’ll be able to find instant updates daily. The brutal beating of a sixteen year old honor student? The story dissipates after the first few headlines.

I first heard about the murder from a student of mine, who brought the issue into the classroom as her chosen topic for weekly discussions we conduct. The student did a great job finding an article for students to read and respond to on our class blog. She also facilitated an engaging, critical conversation around teen violence and bullying, intersecting with issues of race.

Although we did end the discussion on a note of action, thinking about ways we can address violence here in Philadelphia and at our school, our class discussion seemed almost futile in the sense that we were trying to explain an inexplicable occurrence.

Which got me wondering, why is it that it takes the murder of a young man to galvanize such important conversations among students and teachers?

And what else can we do besides just talk?

Sure, my students raised some important and interesting points and hopefully thought through the issue as a result of our discussion, both online and in person. But the conversation came to a close, students got their grade, and we continued down our checklist of announcements, including upcoming progress reports and the PSATs. Our lives as busy students and teachers go on, but Derrion Albert’s does not. I left the discussion feeling sad, discouraged, and pretty powerless.

But really, what can we do?

I think one barrier for action is the shock of a story such as this. Personally, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video footage, but I heard that it was brutal and disturbing. Although there are certainly parallel cases of teen violence in Philadelphia, it is still too easy to separate oneself from the tragedy of another unless we are personally affected.

Students throw around the “Killadelphia” moniker somewhat nonchalantly as though it doesn’t refer to the death of someone’s friend, cousin, classmate, or son. I also think that some students don’t consider verbal assaults or put-downs as violence. When I have taught The Laramie Project in the past, I have discussed with students how epithets are instances of violence, a shocking notion to most of them.

Perhaps one thing we can do is make the issue real for students. For example, talking about specific times they were bullied rather than some abstract example of violence might make for a more fruitful conversation. Also, students should be involved in preventative measures in schools.

It’s not just up to the students though.

As adults, I think we have a responsibility to address violence in our schools. However, as with most critical issues, we would rather not look into root causes and instead address surface level remedies. Not to discount peer mediation or anti-bully messaging, but these measures seem “too little, too late” in most cases. This may seem overly commonsensical, but isn’t the time for action before someone loses their life? When there are incidents of violence on any scale in a school, whether verbal or physical, teachers and administrators should be on alert and should attempt to get at the root of the problem before it escalates any further.

For certain, anti-violence measures are not the action we would prefer to be taking in schools. We should be arguing the best methods of instruction and assessment for students, discussing ways of engaging young people, and encouraging ownership of their learning. We should not be discussing ways of keeping them alive.

But the reality is that young people are hurting and dying and will continue to hurt and die unless we take action. I am curious what conversations and actions other teachers and community members have taken, or plan to take as a result of hearing about the Derrion Albert case. Hopefully there will be more than just conversation.

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