Harper High: The rules for surviving Chicago's streets

The public radio show "This American Life" delves into what it's like for teens living amid the gun violence on Chicago's South Side.

Last Friday, just hours after President Barack Obama spoke in Chicago about the city's gun violence epidemic, another teen was shot. This time, it was 18-year-old Janay McFarland, whose 14-year-old sister had been at the president's speech.

Chicago's ongoing nightmare with gun violence had already drawn national attention. Just days earlier, 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, who had performed at the president's inauguration, was shot and killed as she stood in a neighborhood park about a mile from the Obama home.

What is happening in Chicago?

"For everything we've all heard about children and gun violence, there are basic things we don't hear so much about, like what it's like to live in neighborhoods that have to cope with so much bloodshed,” said "This American Life" host Ira Glass. The radio program gives detailed insight into the chaos and uncertainty that plagues some of the city’s neighborhoods in a two-part series ending this week.

The show focuses on Harper High School, where last year 29 current and former students were shot. Eight of them died.

Reporters spent five months at the school, interviewing administrators, counselors, teachers, students and parents about life in the neighborhood around Harper High, where every student, whether wanting to be or not, is part of a gang.

WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton lays out the rules of life at Harper High in the show's first segment, revealing that no matter what parents do, their kids aren't out of reach of the gangs:

Rule No. 1: Know your geography.

"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," Lutton says.

Rule No. 2: Never walk by yourself.

Rule No. 3: Never walk with someone else.

"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," Lutton says.

Rule No. 4: Do not walk on the sidewalk.

Instead, kids walk in groups together down the middle of the street. "One teacher told me that when she first arrived at Harper, she thought this was just plain hooliganism," Lutton says. "But one afternoon a girl named Alex explained, 'We feel safer like this. For some reason we just feel safe like that. We don't like to walk past trees and stuff. There's too much stuff going on.'"

Rule No. 5: If they shoot, don't run.

What to do instead? As one football player says, you fall to the ground. If you run, you can be shot in the back. It's safer to fall.

Rule. No. 6: You can be shot for reasons both big and small.

He-said/she-said fights. Over money. Over girls. A paint-ball incident turned into an actual shooting. "Of course, you can also be shot for walking off your block," Lutton says.

And finally, Rule No. 7: Never go outside.

When Lutton asked students advice for staying alive in the neighborhood, that's what they told her. Never go outside. Stay at school as long as you can, and get involved in activities. When you do make it home, stay indoors. Don't hang out on your porch.

Her report paints a chilling picture of a neighborhood so wrought by violence that merely walking to and from school takes tremendous courage, and making it is not always a given.

The ubiquity of gang life took "This American Life" by surprise.

"I've done other reporting on gangs and neighborhoods like this," host Ira Glass told The Huffington Post. "I am not new to this subject. But what we learned was how little we knew."

But while Glass and his fellow reporters were not prepared for the harsh realities facing the kids in this Chicago neighborhood, a former teacher said the gangs have been running this way for years.

Commenting on ChicagoNow.com, Rod Estevan wrote: "There is no question that many [Chicago Public School] students are automatically affiliated with a street gang based on where they grew up, as the press release for WBEZ's upcoming episodes on Harper High School states. But it was that way when I taught at Calumet High School years ago. That isn't new."

And while it's true that most of the high-school-level shootings aren't directly about drugs, the hostilities are still rooted in the drug trade and criminal enterprise. Estevan, now an education policy analyst, taught at Calumet in the 1990s.

"I listened to the program on Friday, and the school seemed a lot like old Calumet did," Estevan told MSN News.

The story continues, as Harper's principal and staff wrestle with whether to hold the homecoming game and dance in the aftermath of another shooting.

"This American Life" will release the second episode online on Friday, in advance of its typical Sunday schedule.


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