How to help students overcome violence

The sadness, the outrage of 15-year-old Chicago Public Schools student Hadiya Pendleton’s death by shooting continues a grim story that is overly familiar in our city, in our nation. People are killed too easily by guns.

For the third time, I’ve updated and published this post of a former student who is overcoming the violent death of two siblings so the adults in our students’ lives may find some way to help young people confront tragedy. And so leaders in our city and our country push public safety policies forward before we become desensitized to violence.


About fourteen years ago when I lived in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, a young man was shot right in front of my house late one Saturday night. He bled on our doorstep and died minutes later in the ambulance. Candles with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared by the tree in front of my house throughout the night.

In August 2011, Charinez Jefferson, a 16-year-old young mom was killed in a shooting on Chicago’s South Side. Jefferson left behind two children—one was the child she was carrying at the time of her death. A memorial with teddy bears and balloons stood on 64th street where the shooting happened.

But like many other memorials to murder victims, the bears will disappear and the helium balloons will fall slowly as the sun. Sadly, the story of one young person is replaced with another quickly.

The mayor and our police superintendent are adding 200 more cops to our streets. This may increase safety; this may not. What is certain, however, is that families who survive the violence must continue living knowing, “Someone killed a person I love.”

Twenty-one-year-old Chicago resident Dulce Padilla is surviving the death of two siblings and inspiring others to survive senseless tragedy. When Dulce was in 4th grade, her brother Adrián was killed due to gang violence. Five years later, when she was a freshman in high school, her sister Gloria was murdered and, to this day, the Padilla family does not know why.

We know the Padilla family is not alone. Child Trends Data Bank, an organization dedicated to providing research to inform decision-making that affects children, reports that “children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults are.” On their Web site, Child Trends reports information from a 2008 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV). In this project, “youth ages ten and older were interviewed directly; for children younger than 10, interviews were conducted with their adult caregivers.”

According to NatSCEV, “25% of children in the study had witnessed violence in their homes, schools, and communities in the past year, and 38 percent had witnessed violence against another person during their lifetimes. Nearly one in ten (9.8 percent) saw one family member assault another in the past year.” The study also found that “children who were exposed to one type of violence, both in the past year and over their lifetimes, had a far greater risk of experiencing other types of violence.”

Her Brother

According to a March 2002 Chicago Sun-Times article, at 2:15 a.m. on Saturday, March 16, Adrián Padilla, 20, was gunned down in the 2100 block of West 18th. The cause was allegedly a fight because he and his friend were forced to leave a party. Dulce, who was eleven at the time, remembers, “When that stuff happens, you don’t find out fast. Everybody had different stories. I was shocked. I cried for about a week but I don’t remember it affecting me.”

When she recalls her brother’s death, Dulce says, “I remember it was at a party. Somebody said this guy was selling drugs and he wasn’t supposed to. Somebody else said, ‘No, he was in another gang.’ This other guy died the same day with him and another guy got injured but he didn’t want to say anything.”

Dulce, eventually, had to see her brother lifeless. “I remember,” she says, “when we had to go identify the body and I was like, ‘Let’s go! I want to see him.’” As if evoking her childhood curiosity, Dulce continues the experience. “I remember, first, you go into a room and they have a TV in the corner. First, they show you the face. I saw it and I was like, ‘Ohhh.’” She looked around for others’ reactions and saw that “everyone was crying. Adrián’s girlfriend’s step dad was one of the chiefs in the gang. He had a really good friendship with him. He ran outside of the room and he was in a corner crying, crying, crying. I was like, ‘He’s gonna die.’ Then they were going to take my brother’s body out of the box and my dad said, ‘No, you’re not going to see him. Go outside.’ ”

What Dulce did see as she grew up were the consequences of her brother’s gang involvement. “He was always a rebel. I would say, ‘Mom where you going?’ ‘To find Adrián!’ The cops would always be at my house,” she recalls as, symbolically, police sirens start to sound outside. “My mom would tell the cops he’s been gone for this long or I don’t know where he’s at.”

Dulce grew up in a family of four older sisters and two older brothers. “We were living in a three-bedroom house,” she explains. This is the same Pilsen home she lives in today. To help with sleeping arrangements, the Padillas put a mattress in the living room at night. This is where Dulce slept, on “a colchón in the sala.”

One night, she remembers, “I was lying there. It was probably 11 o’clock at night. My brother left to drop off his girlfriend. He had gone walking. He was with my cousin, too.” Dulce’s short sentences begin to expand as the memory awakens. “My mom,” Dulce continues, “opens the front door and says, ‘Ay, Adrián. Ay, Adrián.’” The tone Dulce uses captures—not any surprise in her mother’s voice—but her disappointment. Dulce tells the story as if she had just heard the conversation. “Adrián said, ‘No, no se preocupe.’ And he came in.” Despite the shocking image, Dulce’s brother didn’t want his mother to worry and he didn’t want to disrespect her. He used the formal usted. “He had a white jacket and it was all full of blood. My mom took him to the bathroom and cleaned him up. I was so scared to check it out.” Dulce knew to stay away from moments like this. “My mom,” she explains, “would have been like, ‘Vete para allá. ¿Qué estás haciendo aquí?’ ”

Dulce would never have been able to answer her mother’s question and explain what she, the little girl, was doing there, watching a mother clean the blood off a young man’s face. But Dulce did know the dangers of her neighborhood. Despite this awareness, at Ruiz Elementary School, Dulce would hang out with gangbangers. She assumes a devious expression as she recalls their conversations: “They would say, ‘Yesterday I was with my boyfriend and we did this and this.’ I would say, ‘Wow. Cooool.’ But in the back of my mind I thought, ‘They’re crazy.’” As it’s always been and probably always will be, “It was cooler to hang out with the bad kids than with the nerds. You would get more respect,” Dulce states as truth.

Perhaps it was Adrián’s experiences that helped her make good decisions despite these bad influences. Once, in eighth grade, when she started acting up in class, Dulce’s teacher warned her and asked her, “Do you want to go to the office?” Dulce said no. She changed her behavior but still sat with the gangbangers at lunch.

Perhaps it was Dulce’s academic achievement that prevented her from getting into more trouble. She was smart. In kindergarten, she was one of the first kids who could count to one hundred. She also remembers memorizing her address and phone number quickly. She got a prize: a pouch with round markers and Post-It Notes. In second grade, she was a math genius when it came to competitions on the board. “One after another, I would beat them,” Dulce says with the pride a gangbanger would use if she were talking about attacking kids. “They were three-digit addition problems.”

Her Sister

Dulce’s academic achievements continued. In the fall of 2006, she started her freshman year at one of the city’s high-achieving selective-enrollment high schools—Jones College Prep. Despite its diversity and the fact that over 50% of the students came from low-income families like Dulce’s, approximately only twenty-five Latino students enrolled in her freshman class of about 150 students. Dulce was the only one from Ruiz.

In classes, Dulce didn’t feel smart anymore. She remembers, “As soon as I saw the white faces, I was like, ‘They’re super smart.’ ” She listened to her white classmates, mostly affluent, and thought, “Oh. White people.” The intimidation came from the way the white students spoke up. “A lot of them sounded more proper,” Dulce explains. “They would always be the ones with their hands raised.”

Dulce remained silent many times in her Survey Literature class. “I didn’t know how to think like that,” she adds. “I wasn’t exposed to that kind of thinking, like analyzing. They were reading between the lines.” Dulce then realized her elementary literacy education had mostly been focused on “right-there questions.” She would have to read a book and then be handed questions by the teacher. She was not prepared to write literary analysis essays. She struggled and admits, “I gave up in all of my classes freshman year because I thought, ‘I’m not going to get a good grade, so I am not even going to try.’ ”

A change happened when she started gaining more friends. She met Tania Orozco from the Southeast Side and realized Tania, too, was struggling. “I started liking Jones,” Dulce says comfortingly. “I started gaining more friends.”

But in January of her freshman year came her oldest sister’s death. Gloria Padilla, 28, was a 2000 University of Chicago graduate. She had worked as a case manager with the Lawndale Christian Health Center and, after her two children were born, Padilla joined Mary Kay. The U of C magazine announcement of her death said, “Survivors include her parents, three sisters, a son, and a daughter.” There were two more survivors the magazine did not mention: one more brother and one more sister.

According to a Sun-Times article, “Padilla died from stab wounds to her neck, an autopsy revealed. The secondary cause of death was strangulation.” The article also mentioned that “Chicago Police said they were questioning a ‘person of interest,’ and that Padilla had filed a criminal sexual assault report against a current boyfriend in December.” Unlike her brother’s death, Dulce remembers everything. By her senior year, she had gotten over the intimidation of white voices and writing struggles. This is what Dulce wrote in an AP English Language essay:

“I hurried to do the last problem of the Geometry assignment when the house phone’s ring caught me by surprise. ‘Hello?’ I answered. ‘Let me speak with your mom or your dad! But hurry, hurry it’s an emergency!’ Edgar’s, my brother-in-law at the time, voice on the other side of the speaker urged. I didn’t think twice about what his panicking voice asked for and I quickly handed over the phone to my mom. A few seconds later I saw her face come into a confused shock and her eyes become watery. ‘What are you talking about? Calm down . . . What are you talking about?! I can’t understand you, you need to calm down! How did that happen?! Okay.’ “

“My mom hung up the phone and she walked toward me. With a confused, devastated face she said, ‘Call your dad at work. Edgar is saying that Gloria is dead.’ ”

” ‘What?! How?!’ I asked in disbelief.”

” ‘I don’t know what’s going on. He was crying too much while he talked to me. He wants your dad over by Gloria’s apartment as soon as possible.’ “

Dulce called her father and maybe she confused him more than her mother confused her. Dulce looked to her mother for a reaction, an explanation, a refutation.

She remembers, “My mom went on, doing things around the house, her body shaking. She had just gotten out of the shower; she looked in the mirror as she continuously combed back her short hair. She took the laundry bin down to the basement to wash five pieces of clothes.” After her mom came up, Dulce recalls, “She looked as if she’d just gone to hell and back.”

Dulce waited for a phone call, for some clarification. She stared out the window wanting to see something, know something. “It seemed so empty and still outside more than the usual winter night,” Dulce writes. “The bright yellow light from the lamp posts lit the dark road. It was very quiet, as if the only person living on Earth that night was me.”

Dulce waited in silence. Her superior memory engraving everything she heard and said. She finally gained the nerve to ask, “Mom, what happened? What did Edgar tell you?”

“Edgar says he found Gloria dead in her apartment.”

“How? How did she–”

“But you know how Edgar is. He exaggerates.”

Dulce knew her mother “was a strong woman. She knew better than to cry over a mistake, or just something she had not yet accepted.” Dulce still waited. “The phone rang once more; it didn’t even finish ringing one time when my mom picked it up. ‘What took you so long? Where are you? . . . Are you sure? What did they tell you? How did it happen? Who did it?’ ” My mom threw desperate questions at my dad who was on the other line; tears ran down her face. The rest of the night was still very confusing, and I fell asleep for a few hours.”

When Dulce awoke, she realized it was true. Gloria did die. Someone killed another person she loved.

At the funeral, which was in a very warm funeral home on a very cold night, a small poster with just a few pictures of Gloria welcomed mourners. It looked like an art project a kid was forced to make. Dulce’s father stood at the foot of the casket nodding, shaking hands, standing guard. Whatever implosions were happening inside him, Dulce’s father didn’t flinch. Dulce’s mother sat in the first row looking at the coffin, looking at the people.

Dulce’s best friend Tania from the Southeast Side sat nearby. For the wake, Dulce wore a white scarf tied around her pony tail. She wore black clothes. Dulce ignored everyone, everyone but Gloria’s lifeless body. Gloria’s body rested, her hair was combed and loose, a scarf wrapped around her neck. Dulce stood with her back to the mourners’ and caressed her oldest sister’s head. The littlest sister shook her head no, no over and over and whispered something only Gloria’s spirit could hear. Gloria’s husband, whom she was divorcing, paid his respects and spoke. Edgar found Gloria’s body when he was dropping off their kids.

Her Struggle

Dulce missed school for a few days and returned around semester finals. As soon as she entered Jones, someone swooped her into a counselor’s office. She just cried and cried. Dulce also dealt with the uncomfortable expressions of sympathy from students she didn’t even know. Once, a student she never talked to walked up to her in the hallway and said how sorry she was. Dulce thought, perhaps offended, “I don’t know you.” Dulce didn’t want sympathy. She wanted time.

In the winter of her senior year, a few months after Dulce wrote about Gloria’s death, Dulce could no longer get along with her mother and moved to the north side with one of her sisters. In addition to the classic mother-daughter struggle many Latinas face, Dulce and her mother continued living with the consequences of two violent family deaths. Dulce and her mother stopped talking to each other.

On one visit as Dulce picked up her mail, Dulce’s mother told her she was going to change the locks. This is why all her daughters moved away, Dulce concludes. “My mom has a really strong attitude,” Dulce recognizes. “She takes it out on everyone and this isn’t going to change. It’s made me more independent. All of it started when I was in 2nd grade when she started chasing Adrián.” After Gloria died, Dulce saw how her mother “had to put a mask on to tell everyone, ‘I’m strong. I’m going to get through this.’ Her daughter died,” Dulce emphasizes. “No one knows who killed her. Gloria used to keep all of us sisters together. What now—now that she’s gone?”

Dulce doesn’t know the answer to this question and she didn’t know how to end her essay either. The essay stops the moment she wakes up the following morning after the two phone calls and realizes Gloria did die. “I felt as if someone had literally just stabbed my heart and left a deep, bleeding wound.” Dulce wrote one more sentence and placed the final period.

Dr. Enrique González, a clinical psychologist, explains the dissonance that occurs when a family member’s death does not fit with a person’s schema, what he or she expects from world. After the violent, unexpected death, surviving family members begin to question the world and the goodness around them. If they are religious, they doubt God. “The commonly known stages of grief,” Dr. González explains, “are still valid.”

Denial begins. “There are 3 aspects to avoidance: emotional-focused coping, escape, or wishful thinking. There’s also problem solving where people seek support or a way to prevent this from happening again,” Dr. González elaborates. He reminds us that “different family members may use different aspects of denial. There’s also an age component. Younger family members will move on quicker because they look forward to new parts of their life. For older members, the losses are harder because the violent death is a reminder of previous sad events.”

The dissonance continues to develop into anger or disappointment. Dr. González explains that this can be expressed toward others or themselves. “They can be angry at their parents, at society.”

If the grief stages continue, “The healing,” Dr. González adds, “begins to happen in the negotiation stage. Here, a family member may begin to work against violence and help prevent it.”

For the cycle to complete, the survivor must reach resolution by accepting the death. “This can be aided,” according to Dr. González, “by getting professional or spiritual guidance so survivors can move beyond questioning why it happened. Family members need to be helped toward problem solving and forgiveness so they can move on with their lives the way we would when we are faced by any change.”

Many survivors will say that at the time of their family member’s murder, they felt alone, picked on, victimized. But Dr. González emphasizes that the resolution stage can help the survivors “understand that the violence was not solely directed at one murder victim. This violence is part of a bigger problem that is affecting more people.” The risk in not getting to this point is that the survivors may become desensitized to violence. For Dr. González, this is a major concern. “People should not become accustomed to violence and say, ‘That’s just the way it is in my neighborhood.’ They need to maintain the understanding that violence is not normal.”

For awhile after Gloria’s death, Latino communities began conversations about violence against women. One and a half months after Gloria’s death, officials from the Chicago Foundation for Women, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, and possibly other organizations, hosted a forum at city college to discuss a rise in crimes against women on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

This school year, students will continue, unfortunately, to face violence. And teachers can help students through the grief stages. Dr. Gonzalez suggests “providing age-appropriate activities so students can work through their denial or anger. Writing or art are good options. The most important thing,” Dr. Gonzalez stresses, “is to let them share it with you.”

Dulce is willing to share. In one conversation, Dulce talked about a time when Adrián and Gloria were arguing about which milk is better: the one with the blue tab or the one with red tab? They wanted Dulce to decide. Gloria had the blue tab; Adrián had the red one. Dulce gets excited as she remembers, “Adrián was like, ‘Dulce! Dulce!’ And I thought, ‘I like the red tab, but I like Gloria more.’ Gloria was like my mom. I was like, ‘Crap.’ I said red. My brother was like, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you!’” Dulce laughs as if she could tell this story one hundred times and not get tired of it.

Another option to help students affected by violence is to connect them and their families with victim’s support programs, such as the Illinois Attorney General’s Crime Victim Services Division. The Illinois Crime Victim Compensation Program, for example, can provide innocent victims and their families with up to $27,000 in financial assistance for expenses accrued as a result of a violent crime. Applications, of course, require time, paperwork, and, probably, guidance.

Her Future

Dulce Padilla survived high school, earned a highly competitive teaching scholarship from the Golden Apple Foundation, and enrolled at DePaul University to become an elementary-school teacher. Dulce is entering her junior year at DePaul and is determined to continue her academic success: she’s made it on the Dean’s List 4 out of the last 6 quarters. She drives a silver 2000 Chevy Cavalier she bought with her summer internship money and works as a cashier.

Dulce also turned to her friends for support. “My friends are like my sisters,” Dulce says. She still has Tania from the Southeast Side as a best friend. Tania, too, will be a teacher. Golden Apple helped Dulce make three more good friends. Two of them also faced difficult family situations. “We are all striving toward the same goal—to be a good teacher,” Dulce says undoubtedly. This strength keeps her focused even if some teachers try to dissuade her.

During her first summer internship, Dulce offers as an example, “I heard mean comments from some cooperating teachers. One teacher asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to be a teacher? It’s awful.’ Another teacher had kids chatting in the back of the room during her lesson and she yelled, ‘Shut up!’ I thought, ‘Maybe if you were teaching in a fun way, they wouldn’t talk so much.’ ”

She has another support now. In June, Dulce married Ariel Ontiveros and changed her last name. Dulce Ontiveros still wants to be a teacher but had to leave the Golden Apple program because she cannot meet its requirement of studying in Illinois. Dulce’s husband joined the military. Soon, she will re-locate to continue her new life with him and finish her degree at another university. “I will continue,” Dulce says, “to pursue my goal of becoming a teacher that inspires and reaches out to students in need wherever I am although it would be ideal for me (and I expect to do this) to come back to Chicago when my husband fulfills his contract.”

Gloria Padilla was killed over five years ago, Adrián Padilla over ten. But for Dulce, in some ways, time is stopped. “We don’t go on,” she explains with the sadness as strong as physical pain. “Time goes on but my heart is still stuck in that day. Every day. We still haven’t figured out what happened. I don’t see Gloria’s kids, which is probably good because if I saw them, I couldn’t do anything for them and the fact that they don’t have their mother. I’m not over it. My mom is the same way. We’re all the same way. My brother’s friends—they cried for a month, but we still live through it.”

For Dulce and her sisters, the relationship with their father provides some comfort. Dulce becomes calm when she describes how he will call them to ask how they are doing and chat. “I love my dad,” Dulce says caringly. “He’s a sweetheart, a hard worker. My mom takes out her anger on him and he doesn’t say anything. He’s so respectful.”

Among the sisters, the tension has subsided. Last year, Dulce was not on speaking terms with two of her sisters. However, Dulce reflects, “I grew out of that stage of giving someone the silent treatment and realized that every day isn’t promised.” Although her mother has not changed much, according to Dulce, she says, “I am getting better at understanding her thinking, which helps me.”

In many ways, Dulce continues to ground herself in the coping strategy she and her family used after Gloria’s death. In the brief Sun-Times article published two days after her sister’s death, Dulce, the only family member quoted, articulated how her family was coping with “yet another murder in the family.” Dulce simply said, “We’re trying our best.”


This article was originally posted in August 2011.

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