Sunday, July 15, 2007

Poor Kids Living in a War Zone

Published: July 14, 2007


The colorful playground outside Frederick Funston Elementary School has swings and sliding boards and a heartbreaking makeshift memorial for the 13-year-old girl who was shot to death in the playground a few weeks ago.

“It’s difficult out here,” said a woman who sat on a bench, watching her two small boys scampering around the playground.

What she meant was that there was nothing particularly unusual about schoolchildren getting blown away in Chicago’s black and Latino neighborhoods. Since September, when the last school year started, dozens of this city’s public school students have been murdered, most of them shot to death. As of last week, the toll of public schoolchildren slain in Chicago since the opening of the school year had reached 34, including two killed since the schools closed for summer vacation.

“That’s more than a kid every two weeks,” said Arne Duncan, the chief executive of the city’s school system. “Think about that.”

The girl killed in the playground was Schanna Gayden, who, according to the police, was shot in the head by a gang member who was aiming at someone else. Blair Holt, a high school junior, was shot to death on a city bus. Another teenager was killed as he walked home from a library.

Lazarus Jones, a 13-year-old computer-lover who was looking forward to beginning high school in the fall, was jumped by several members of a gang and beaten to death. Twelve-year-old Laura Joslin was stabbed to death, police said, by an 18-year-old girl on Thanksgiving Day. Victor Casillas, 15, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

And so on.

This should be a major national story, of course, and it would be if the slain children had come from more privileged backgrounds. But these are the kids that most of America cares nothing about — black, Latin and poor.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper covered the story. He said of the kids, poignantly: “Their names should be known. Their lives should be honored. Their deaths should be remembered.”

But that was an exception. Outside of Chicago, very little reporting has been done on this horrifying wave of murders. The truth, of course, is that Chicago is not alone. It may be jolting, even in our blood-drenched society, to have so many students from one school system killed over the course of a single school year. But most people know (and take for granted) that boys and girls growing up in America’s inner cities often have to deal with conditions that can fairly be compared to combat.

“There’s just a tremendous amount of passivity and a lack of public outrage,” said Mr. Duncan, a fierce champion of efforts to control the relentless arming of Americans — young and old, rich and poor — with firearms.

“No one even talks about all the kids who are shot but not killed,” he said. He mentioned a 7-year-old who was shot at a family barbecue. “The amount of trauma these kids and their families are living with is just staggering,” he said.

We know at least some of the things that need to be done about the slaughter of poor children in the U.S.

Mr. Duncan is surely right when he says that the easy availability of guns is roughly the equivalent of spraying gasoline on an already fiery situation. The effect of the guns is to make a bad situation much, much worse.

Beyond the guns, apart from the horrifying fact that they might meet up with a bullet at any time, poor youngsters are suffering from a ruthless pattern of abuse and neglect that has lasted for many years.

Too few have been afforded the benefits of a quality education. Too many are left to their own devices because of an absence of after-school programs and other kinds of activities — clubs, sports, art and music programs, summer camps — that can enrich the lives of children and shield them from harm.

Summer jobs programs have been decimated by the federal government.

And in far too many cases, the very people who should be caring for these youngsters the most, their parents, have walked away from their most fundamental responsibilities. Fathers, especially, have abandoned their young in droves.

Life is not fair. Society will not make these vulnerable youngsters whole. We all have a responsibility, but the kids desperately need those closest to them to step up, especially the ones who gave them life.