Life & Death At Harper High School

What does it mean -- what does it feel like -- to go to school every day not knowing if you or friends will make it through the day?

Since the end of the summer, WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton, author Alex Kotlowitz, and Ben Calhoun have been embedded at Harper High School, whose students and recent alumni included 29 shot or killed last year.

This American Life is running a two-part show about the school and the surrounding community, and from what I've heard already it's pretty amazing.You may remember that Lutton told the story of one student's murder last summer, which is what inspired this second deeper look.

So far as I've listened to the press preview, the story's not much about the classroom but rather about what goes on in the halls, in the counselors' offices, and on the way to and from school.  The administrators try and keep tabs on what's going on among students, in order to prevent or limit confrontations.  The students describe a bewildering mix of ever-shifting min-gangs that little resemble the old days of Bloods and Crips with top-down control and formal initiation rituals (if those days were ever portrayed accurately).

[Speaking of accurate portrayals, if anyone from Harper or thereabouts has thoughts about the previous effort to describe the school, or who's participated in the more recent effort, please let us know.]

Harper High School, Part One airs this Friday and covers the start of school and the tumultuous events of the fall.  The following week, Harper High School, Part Two describes the easy access to handguns and the students' ideas of what can be done to make things better.

Press release is here.  Summer 2012 WBEZ story by Lutton is here.


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  • There is no question that many CPS 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. It is also true that most gang related killings at the high school level are not directly about the drug trade.

    But many, many, of the underlying hostilities between gang related crews do have dynamics related to the drug trade or other criminal activities.

    Let's look for a moment at Michael Ward and Kenneth Williams the alleged murders of Hadiya Pendleton. It has now been widely reported that they both were affiliated with the Su Wu gang faction of the Gangster Disciples and were probably hunting the 4-6 Terror faction. The Chicago Crime Commission, has identified 250 factions of the Gangster Disciples in the city. While from what I have seen neither of these individuals have been charged in the past with drug crimes the Su Wu faction has video clips on the internet talking about their drug dealing. Also according to his attorney one of the accused in the crime, Kenneth Williams is reported to have graduated from King Prep himself. Williams was shot near the very heart of the Su Wu gang's drug hub at 40th and Lake Park. So the Su Wu gang may in fact have a presence in King Prep itself.

    So while at the high school level actual conflicts that lead to shootings may not be about drug dealing many of the underlying conflicts are generated by the drug trade. The situation in many poor communities in Chicago is not all that different than in certain towns in Mexico, we are in the middle of drug wars that have many tentacles.

    Rod Estvan

  • did you hear the show last night? what'd you think?


    Some schools use military-style "After Action Response" debriefings in the wake of violent incidents

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