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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence 6 Shooting at Tilden High: Causes and Consequences John Hagan, Paul Hirschfield, and Carla Shedd Joseph White shot and killed Delondyn Lawson at Tilden High School in the last fatal Chicago school shooting nearly a decade ago. This event was portrayed by extensive news coverage as random and senseless and by a jury trial as a first degree homicide that was inexcusable as self-defense. However, this shooting was not random, and while it could not be justified as self-defense, it evolved out of a gang-related dispute with socially structured roots. This case study shows with an analysis of news media reports, census statistics and trial transcripts, and through personal interviews with community and school participants, lawyers, news reporters and public officials, how the Tilden school shooting was connected to major historical changes in the economic and racial context that led to entrenched gang conflict in the South Side community where it occurred. This case study further shows how the trial of Joseph White became a political object lesson in the need for metal detectors in South Side secondary schools, a policy that evolved into a wide range of “zero tolerance” and disciplinary and exclusionary measures that diffused across the country, with Chicago Mayor Daley as their persuasive advocate. The Tilden High shooting was embedded in social conflicts that reveal it was neither random nor senseless in the way initial news coverage suggested, while the trial had much broader consequences than was indicated by the conviction for first degree homicide itself.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY No student has been fatally shot in a Chicago public school since 1992. The last two fatal shootings occurred in high schools on Chicago’s South Side during a 10-day period from November 10 to 20, 1992. A youth accidentally shot himself at school in the first incident. The second incident that is the focus of this study resulted in the death of one 15-year-old boy, the serious wounding of a second youth, and the shooting of a third youth in the foot. The youth who was killed, Delondyn Lawson, was identified in the first front page news stories (November 20, 1992), while the shooter and other two victims were not. The initial stories came on Friday, the day after the Thursday shooting. They reported the shooting as a response to a skirmish about a gambling debt. The gambling involved a dice game earlier in the week in a school washroom. The shooter was described as having “fired a handgun about four times randomly toward the skirmish.” Two unidentified suspects were reportedly arrested, and it was noted that metal detectors at the school were not functioning on the day of the shooting because they were being used on randomly chosen days to minimize cost and disruption. The next day, Saturday, the story was again on page one and the headline read, “Even Safety of Schools Shattered, Student Slain, 2 Others Wounded in Hallway at Tilden” (November 21, 1992). The story was built around the victim’s mother, Linda Lawson, who asked, “What was I supposed to do with a 15-year-old? I drove him there in the morning, and I was there at 2:02 p.m. to pick him up. What else can you do? You have to send them to school.” The story noted that Delondyn Lawson had been fatally shot in the back, and two other youths were injured. Joseph White was identified in this story as the alleged shooter and as a 15-year-old freshman at Tilden now charged in adult court with first degree murder. He had fled the school pursued by other youths and a security guard and hid under a nearby back porch before being found and arrested. The story again mentioned the dice game and now briefly the possibility of gang involvement. Delondyn Lawson was described as a “great dancer and funny,” a boy who liked football and video games and who was trying to stay away from gangs. This second story also marked the entry of Mayor Richard Daley into the matter. The mayor responded to the random use of metal detectors, which was defended by the police and schools. “They have to realize you have to run them every day,” the mayor insisted, “because if we run them in the federal building and in the state criminal justice system, you can’t get [guns] in there.” The mayor asked, “What’s more important? Children are more important than anybody else in society. And that shooting, the death of a young child, directly affects everyone.” The mother of a
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence sophomore girl at Tilden elaborated the headline of the story by observing that “It’s bad enough they’re [the gangs] taking violence into the neighborhoods, but when they’re taking it into the schools, it’s bad.” She emphasized that schools are different kinds of places: “They’re just here to learn. They’re not here to be dying.” The third day, Sunday, brought another page one story focused on the apparent randomness of the deadly victimization, saying “Student Was in the Wrong Place at Wrong Time” (November 22, 1992). Joseph White again was identified as the charged assailant who was in jail and had been denied bond in court on Saturday. The story then focused on Delondyn Lawson and his family. His mother described Delondyn as a child who cried easily and who recently had been attending funerals for boys he knew at a rate of one or two a month. “His friends are constantly dying around him,” his mother reported, “They’re getting shot on the corners. Every month somebody he knew in his age group was dying.” Delondyn’s former school principal called it an American tragedy. The news story reported that while he was walking between classes “a bullet tore through Delondyn’s back and through his heart,” killing him almost instantly. Delondyn had been staying with his aunt and then his father until his mother had retaken custody of him in the preceding weeks. She was trying to help Delondyn keep out of trouble and get his grades up, in part by picking him up after classes each day and then tutoring him for two hours of schoolwork. Other members of the family said that he wasn’t in a gang but his friends were. “The guys who are in the gang grew up with him,” a relative explained. “It’s not like he don’t know them. He’s got to go through them. These are kids that he’s seen all his life.” The conclusion of the initial news coverage of the Tilden High shooting came in a page seven story the following Tuesday (November 24, 1992). (For a summary of the media coverage regarding this case, see Box 6-1.) The family of Joseph White had retained Chicago attorney Robert Habib to represent their son, and he appeared in Cook County Circuit Court on Monday seeking to bar the news media from further reporting of the boy’s name, because he was a juvenile. Yet White had already been charged as an adult, and raising this issue simply resulted in his name appearing again in the same sentence as the report of the judge’s refusal to suppress his identity, followed by a repetition of the report of the Saturday refusal of the appeal for his release on bond. Habib noted that the state’s attorney asserted in the bond hearing that “White just walked in … started shooting.” As a result, “you had that image right off the bat, that Joseph White had made an unprovoked attack in the school, literally just walked in and started firing.”
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence BOX 6-1MEDIA CHRONOLOGY October 12, 1989. “Youth Slain in Front of Classmates.” Chicago Tribune. September 26, 1991. “Once Safe Havens, Schools Now in Line of Fire.” Chicago Tribune. March 21, 1992. “Police Fire Two Police Officers Over Incident with Teens.” Chicago Sun-Times, p. 4. June 5, 1992. “Daley Offers Metal Detectors to Schools.” Chicago Tribune. October 22, 1992. “Daley Prods Schools on Metal Detectors.” Chicago Sun-Times, p. 4. October 23, 1992. “School Metal Detectors Offer no Protection for Kids Out-side.” Chicago Tribune. November 20, 1992. “Boy Killed in Shooting at Tilden High School.” Chicago Tribune, p. 1. November 21, 1992. “Even Safety of Schools Shattered, Student Slain, 2 Others Wounded in Hallway at Tilden.” Chicago Tribune, p. 1. November 22, 1992. “Student was in Wrong Place at Wrong Time.” Chicago Tribune, p. 1. November 23, 1992. “Teen Charged as Adult in Killing.” Chicago Defender, p. 1. November 24, 1992. “Body Count Rises in the Public Schools.” Chicago Tribune, p. 18. November 24, 1992. “Tilden Tries to Heal Wounds, Counselors Help Students Cope with Fatal Shooting.” Chicago Tribune, p. 7. November 27, 1992. “Metal Detectors in School Set Off Alarms.” Chicago Tribune, p. 1. December 1, 1992. “It May be too Late to Sound an Alarm.” Chicago Tribune, Bob Green Editorial. December 5, 1992. “Bullets Rip School’s Illusion of Safety.” Chicago Tribune, p. 1. June 14, 1993. “Death of an Innocent Bystander: The Peacekeeper in his Family, Delondyn Lawson is Cut Down at Random by a Classmate Firing Wildly.” People magazine, pp. 48–49. January 20, 1994. “Trial Opens in Killing at Tilden.” Chicago Tribune, p. 5. January 22, 1994. “Teen Guilty of Slaying in Tilden Hallway.” Chicago Tribune, p. 5. March 15, 1994. “Prison Term in School Shooting.” Chicago Tribune, p. 3. September, 1998. “Chicago Public Schools: Expulsions Rise, But Safety Issues Persist,” by Natalie Pardo, Chicago Reporter. March 11, 1999. “Off-Campus Arrest Could Boot Kids: Expulsion Policy to Stiff-en.” Chicago Sun-Times, p. 3. February 15, 2000. “Boy Charged in Shooting of Classmate.” Chicago Tribune. February 16, 2000. “Vallas, Daley Encourage Broad Gun-Detector Use.” Chicago Tribune. April 7, 2000. “Vallas Wants Poverty Cash for Security.” Chicago Tribune. Habib later encountered the judge who had denied the suppression of Joseph White’s name. The judge confided that, “You know, quite frankly, had there been no publicity on the case, I probably would have granted your motion. But at this point, we’d look like total fools given the
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence fact that everybody in Chicago knows his name.” Habib felt he had probably already lost the case at this point. “The dominant issue was the fact that he was convicted in the media, before we had a chance.” He lamented taking what he called the approach of “an attorney of the old school”: “The last thing you did was try your case in the media. That was a huge mistake that I made when I look back at it. When I watched the attorneys in the O.J. Simpson case jump in front of the TV cameras every chance to try to portray him as being innocent or whatever, I congratulated them.” Habib believes he didn’t do enough of this, but he did encourage White’s mother to assume a public role. Following the Monday court appearance, Joseph White’s mother, Karen, appeared before television cameras to answer reporters’ questions. “Any parent with kids understands there are no model kids,” she began. Picking up on the American tragedy theme introduced by Lawson’s former school principal, she then observed that, “It’s a tragedy for both and all parties concerned—for the families and the kids. He is a victim of a tragic situation that cannot be altered.” Karen White then echoed Mayor Daley’s pleas for the regular use of metal detectors. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune also took up Daley’s theme, observing that “had metal detectors been used routinely at Tilden, Delondyn Lawson’s killer might have been deprived of his weapon—or at least forced to use it elsewhere.” Karen White’s public comments began to suggest the way in which she was caught up in this story along with her son. She was off work on the day of the shooting and, because her son was identified so quickly by other youths as the shooter, the police were at her doorstep within the hour. “I was washing my hair when somebody was beating on the door. When I went downstairs and opened the door, there was just like police everywhere.” She was told of the shooting and that Joseph was at large and armed with a gun. “The only thought that I was thinking was that my son was going to be killed. They said he had a gun and that if he came back, I needed to let them know because he was in danger of being killed if they saw him with that gun.” Karen could not reach her husband at work but was able to get her sister-in-law to drive her to the school. She was terrified. “Over in that area there have been a lot of police shootings and there were so many boys that had gotten killed, you know, so I was thinking that Joey was going to get killed.” When Karen White arrived at the school the police had apprehended Joseph across the street. “They were laying him up against a car and they were handcuffing him…. My first thought was just being thankful to God that he was alive.” They took him to the 51st Street police station. Karen followed and when she arrived “everything was just pandemonium.” Joseph was already locked in a cell, and she was allowed to join him. “When I saw him he was scared, he just looked wild-eyed
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence because he didn’t know, you know, he did that [the shooting] but he did not know the full ramifications of his actions. Joey, when I saw him, I saw that my baby was scared out of his brain and confused looking, you know, he was just hysterical.” There was little she could do. “We really didn’t have a chance to talk, they were trying to ask him questions, they read him his rights and then told him that he had a right to an attorney and that if he didn’t want to speak about anything that he didn’t have too.” Karen contacted attorney Habib through a friend and then stayed with Joseph. “We stayed there until maybe 11 or 12 o’clock at night and finally the district attorney came down and they told me that they were indicting him for murder.” Karen returned home after “the worst day of my life.” Less frequent but continuing news stories appeared over the following days and weeks. Habib did not push for the case to go quickly to trial, hoping the intervening time would allow the effect of the pretrial publicity to subside. However, the appearance of an article in a June 1993 issue of People magazine about Delondyn Lawson and his mother, Linda, focusing on the loss of her son, brought new attention to the shooting to a national audience (June 14, 1993). Linda Lawson revealed that Delondyn had not wanted to go to school on that Thursday and that she had worried that he was becoming involved with gang members. She wondered now, “Was he having problems he didn’t want to tell me about?” Still, Delondyn was described as a “helpmate with a tender heart” and Joseph White as the youth who “had pulled a small semiautomatic pistol from his waistband and blasted away until he ran out of bullets.” Linda described how she learned from a neighbor that her son was a victim in the shooting and rushed first to the school and then to the hospital. “When I came through the door, I knew, … no one had to tell me.” She continued, “Seeing my baby laying up there, that’s a feeling I can’t describe…. I think the thing that hurt me most was that I wasn’t there with him [when he died].” Linda’s sister, Cathy, looked for answers: “Do you blame the boy or the boy’s parents or the school?” White’s lawyer, Habib, knew that in this atmosphere his client was going to be convicted and receive a prison sentence, and he therefore initiated plea negotiations in an attempt to reduce the charge and the sentence. He was stonewalled with the response that there was too much adverse publicity about the shooting to plea bargain. “I tried several times in conferences with the state’s attorney, and they just came back and said, ‘No, we can’t do it. The supervisor says no way. Because of the pressure on us, we cannot give you a plea on this case.’” When the alternatives were exhausted, the case finally went to trial more than a year after the shooting, on January 19, 1994.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence TILDEN IN CONTEXT Tilden High School is located at the intersection of 47th Street and Union Street in the south side area of Chicago known historically for the Union Stock Yards. The gates to the Yards were opened in 1865 and stayed open for more than 100 years. The area surrounding is still called New City, the name given to it by sociologists in the 1920s. New City contains two historic neighborhoods that emerged to the east and west of the Yards. The area to the east that includes Tilden High School is known as Canaryville. Its history through the early part of the 20th century was dominated by the packinghouse district and its adjoining neighborhood to the west. The area to the west and south is known as Back of the Yards. This is the area that gained notoriety as a desolate industrial slum in Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel, The Jungle, which was published just after the major packinghouse strikes of 1904. Back of the Yards became more notorious after a 1919 race riot and the major packinghouse strike of 1922. Southern blacks were brought to Chicago as strikebreakers in this part of the century, anticipating some of the change and conflict to follow. The population of this part of Chicago peaked in about 1920. The older, white ethnic and more established Mexican American families and institutions in the Back of the Yards area have been represented since 1938 by the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), which was founded by the famous community organizer Saul Alinsky and other local leaders. The end of World War II brought major changes to the New City area. Meat packers began to buy animals directly from farmers, and interstate trucking replaced the use of the railroads in the transportation and delivery of live animals and frozen meat. The packinghouses of the area steadily declined as a focal point of the meat industry. By the early 1970s, the Union Stock Yards had closed its gates and the economic underpinnings of this area were permanently altered. There have been various efforts to revive the economic life of the area, including the designation of the Stock Yards District as one of two Chicago urban enterprise zones in 1984 and the building of a new shopping mall with several large retail anchor stores in 1990. Although these efforts have been cited as a national model of urban redevelopment, the results are still more promise than reality, and the New City area remains economically troubled. Social change accompanied the economic alteration of life in New City through much of the last century. When Joseph White’s family moved in the spring of 1971 to their home at 324 West 51st Street, about a mile from Tilden High, the surrounding area was still overwhelmingly white and only 4 percent black. However, as indicated in Figure 6-1, by the time Joseph was approaching kindergarten in 1980, the area was less
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence FIGURE 6-1 New City population by race. SOURCE: Chicago Area Geographic Information Study (2001). than two-thirds white, nearly one-quarter black, and about one-fifth other, mostly Mexican American. As Joseph approached high school in 1990, New City was less than one-third white, nearly half black, and about one-quarter Mexican American. The White family was experiencing this era of rapid social change firsthand, and it involved more than changing numbers on a graph can tell. As blacks arrived in increasing numbers from the southern states, they settled in the South Side of Chicago, and low-cost public housing projects began to rise. Real estate operators steered blacks who could afford to buy homes into South Side neighborhoods and simultaneously scared whites into leaving, profiting on the rapid turnover. The resulting plunge in real estate values contributed to the impoverishment of the new residents. Meanwhile, banks “redlined” areas for which they would deny loans. Businesses began to leave these neighborhoods, and city services declined. A cycle of disinvestments contributed to the ongoing process of decline. Chicago was emerging in the latter half of the 20th century as one of the most racially segregated cities in America. As Figure 6-2 shows, 1990 census figures indicate that the numbers actually do not reveal the extent to which New City is racially segregated. There are census tracts within New City that are almost entirely white as well as tracts that are almost entirely black. The tract around Tilden High retained a large white population into the late 1980s, even though by then the majority of youth attending the school were black.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence FIGURE 6-2 1990 New City census data by race. SOURCE: Chicago Area Geographic Information Study (2001). The White family moved into a low-income housing development of new homes in 1971, when Joseph’s mother was only 21 years old. Her grandparents had joined in the northern migration that led from Tennessee to Chicago, where Karen White was born. Almost all of her immediate family members have lived in this city. All the families moving into the adjoining new houses with the Whites were also black. Karen had recently married; she and her new husband felt the area offered the advantages of a new community, with a nearby church and elementary school, where they would be accepted and could successfully raise a family. They have now been married for more than 30 years, raising several children in this home. Karen’s husband is disabled from several strokes; they now live mostly in Texas to be closer to their daughter and her children. The changes we have described brought inevitable racial tension to the New City area and to Tilden High School. Tilden opened in 1889 and once ranked as an advantaged institution in the educational hierarchy of south Chicago. At the turn of the century, “The students were special, out of the ordinary, and they knew it. Their chances to succeed were better than most of the friends they grew up with, and they would soon move on to a different rank in society” (Slayton, 1986). However, Tilden changed as the community around it experienced an economic and social transformation over the century. The Canaryville neighborhood made news when in the winter of 1982 the mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne, ordered the dismantling of four heavy iron gates erected during the 1960s to separate white from black areas. Karen White was a supervisor in the accounts department of a large Chicago newspaper when Joseph entered high school. She had achieved
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence a measure of success and felt hopeful for her family. Nevertheless, soon after moving into her new home, Karen White learned about gang problems in the community. “It was the Mickey Cobras that were in the area. I didn’t know a lot about gangs; I was never affiliated, but moving into that area and through my kids and their friends, we found out the area we lived in was the Mickey Cobra area.” The transformation of New City and Tilden High is well summarized, in terms of its racial implications for young people, by the classic work of Gerald Suttles in another south side Chicago neighborhood. Suttles (1968) observes that racial and ethnic groups become identified with sociospatial locations in urban areas, and these identifications have strong implications for interactions between and within groups. In earlier times there was intense racial conflict, including the race riot of 1919 in the Stock Yards over the hiring of strikebreakers (Chicago Commission on Human Relations, 1922). While this produced enduring racial divisions that would continue to plague Chicago (Halpern, 1997), this situation ultimately settled into a pattern of community isolation and ethnic insularity reflected most prominently in persistent residential segregation (Cohen, 1990). In addition, there was historical significance to a contradictory kind of integrated employment that ultimately emerged in the packinghouses of the New City area: “Indeed, in many urban areas the packinghouse was the largest interracial institution, one of the few places where blacks and whites interacted on a daily basis” (Halpern and Horowitz, 1996:2). Suttles (1968:31) describes the kind of isolation and insulation that emerged in the surrounding neighborhoods: “First, each group is a socio-spatial unit. Second, inclusion in these groupings is mutually exclusive. Third, opposition is between ‘equivalent’ units. Fourth, the order by which groups combine preserves the equivalence of oppositional units.” The reflection in New City of the social order that Suttles describes consists of racially homogeneous gangs that more often enter into conflict with one another than across racial lines. Each of Tilden’s low-income neighborhoods was dominated by a different gang. At the time of the shooting, at least six gangs had a significant presence in the black neighborhoods around Tilden: the Black Gangster Disciples, the Mickey Cobras, the Blackstones, the Vicelords, the Latin Kings, and the Satan Disciples. White students also belonged to neighborhood gangs. Prior to the wave of disciplinary reforms in Chicago, Tilden High School was a place where gang members could freely assemble and carry out recruitment and money-making activities. More generally, schools provided a setting where rival gangs could interact and compete for shares of various illegal markets. In the early 1990s, Tilden was an extremely volatile environment, and fights were a nearly daily occurrence.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Most of the clashes at Tilden occurred between gangs of the same race. An exception, according to the school police officer, was a clash that occurred shortly before the shooting. One of the members of a black gang reportedly slapped the girlfriend of the leader of Tilden’s Latin Kings. Outnumbered by the rival black gang, the leader solicited the help of adult Latin Kings from the nearby Latino neighborhood. Soon after, these adult gang members surrounded the school with shotguns and prepared to seek revenge against the various black gangs. We interviewed the school police officer about his recollection of this incident: Q: What did you do? A: I pleaded with the gang leader to call them off. Q: Did you call other cops? A: If I put out a request for assistance, I could expect one car at the most. If I put out a 10-1, which is a serious officer distress call, I might get two cars. So I had to handle it myself. The Latin Kings’ leader heeded the officer’s pleas and called off the rival gang. This experience, the school police officer surmised, nonetheless indicated to the black gangs that in the face of a serious deadly threat they could not rely on authorities but must instead rely on each other. This experience of a common enemy briefly fostered an atmosphere of relative harmony among gangs from the same Gang Nation, which for the purpose of this analysis most notably included the Mickey Cobras and the Blackstones. In this way, race may have been an important factor in explaining why two rival gangs were exhibiting a sort of camaraderie by gambling with each other in the school bathroom (Yablonsky, 1997). In the overarching organizational structure of the Gang Nation, the Blackstones and the Mickey Cobras were temporarily friendly affiliates who fell under the branch of the “Peoples.” In times of war with the rival branch, the “Folks,” these gangs would come together. A gang officer at the 51st Street police station confirmed that such alliances still occur today. The school police officer who worked at Tilden High in the early 1990s concluded that the gambling episode that precipitated the shooting was borne out of this tentative truce between black gangs. He nonetheless recalled his own surprise as he witnessed members of the different black gangs, the rival Mickey Cobras and the Blackstones, all gambling together in the bathroom. This was the complicated and gang-dominated world of young people who attended Tilden High School. Students had to negotiate the boundaries of gangs and neighborhoods in their everyday movements to and from school as well as in it. The “ordered segmentation” of different
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence like.” The next year they reported confiscating 192 guns (June 5, 1992). The confiscations—many of which resulted from metal detector use— offered evidence of the potential utility of the detectors to prevent serious violence. Armed with these fresh figures suggesting the need for metal detectors, Mayor Daley pursued a second strategy of minimizing the costs of the metal detectors to the school system. He (June 5, 1992) announced a plan in the early summer of 1992 to purchase from city funds two walk-through metal detectors and four handheld detectors for any Chicago high school that requested them. This initiative did not utilize funds from the Board of Education’s limited budget and thereby preempted fiscal objections on the part of board members. The board responded by voting in September to amend their search and seizure policy and by requiring schools to approve safety and security plans that provided for the use of metal detectors. Tilden was among the first high schools that accepted Mayor Daley’s offer. While Daley managed to win the support of the school board, the facts about gun seizures and the city’s coverage of costs were not sufficient, even with board support, to persuade many LSCs to install and operate the metal detectors. As of fall 1992—one month before the Tilden shooting—27 of the city’s 75 public high schools and special schools had not yet taken up the city’s offer to provide metal detectors (October 22, 1992). Mayor Daley responded by publicly naming each of these schools at a news conference, thus implying that the school administrators—and not the police department—would henceforth be considered responsible for weapons-related injuries or deaths occurring inside their schools. A principal (October 22, 1992) of a school that had not chosen to install the detectors was quoted in the media as saying that walk-through metal detectors, as opposed to locker searches and handheld metal detectors, presented “staffing problems.” Another principal (October 23, 1992) observed, “we thought it would send the wrong message, that we won’t trust them and that this is a prison,” adding, “we made a decision not to do it for reasons we thought were valid, and now we have to back off on it because of a guilt trip from the mayor.” According to Thomas Byrne, the deputy chief of the school patrol units, these 27 schools were not the only ones resisting the metal detectors. He observed that some schools had accepted the metal detectors but were generally not operating them themselves. Rather, these schools operated their detectors selectively on the occasion of random searches that were conducted, with the help of the school patrol units, by the Board Security, who generally utilized their own metal detectors for this purpose.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Tilden High School was among the latter group. Hazel Steward, who was Tilden’s principal through this turbulent period, explains that Tilden’s own metal detectors were in operation about once a month prior to the shooting, because “it took a lot of extra staff and police.” She added, “It wasn’t mandatory, so we did it periodically; that was the way it worked.” She explained that it would have been very expensive for the school to hire and train extra security staff to run the detectors each day, requiring funds the school believed it could not justify spending in this way. Schools that were not participating in the metal detector program at all, and schools like Tilden that were participating partially, were forced to reconsider their policies with the shooting death of Delondyn Lawson. Occurring only one month after Mayor Daley had sounded the alarm about metal detectors, the fatal Tilden shooting underscored Daley’s arguments for the use of metal detectors and fulfilled his warning that the schools rather than the city would be held accountable for such incidents. The mayor (November 21, 1992) immediately placed responsibility for the fatality on the school by implying that the shooting could have been prevented if on that day and all others the school’s metal detectors were fully utilized. The school superintendent, Ted Kimbrough (November 20, 1992), earlier had been less judgmental, suggesting that the random metal detector searches employed at Tilden at this time were “standard procedure.” After the Tilden shooting, however, no Chicago school principals were quoted as saying that metal detectors were still unnecessary for their schools. The Tilden incident magnified the threat of in-school deadly violence in the minds of formerly skeptical principals, or at least took the political wind out of the sails of any opposition to metal detectors. Nor did any locally initiated alternatives to the metal detector policy receive attention in the press. Rather, metal detectors were generally hailed as a readily accessible and reasonably effective—though unpleasant—solution that could immediately allay growing fears in the community. The press portrayed the metal detectors as a necessary, though not a sufficient mechanism, to cope with the real and severe threat of school violence. A lone voice of dissent was Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene, who believed that metal detectors would promote safer schools, but at a considerable cost. Metal detectors are “our most awful failure,” Greene lamented after the Tilden shooting, “both as a symbol of today and a sign-post to our children’s future.” Deputy Byrne credits the Tilden incident with laying to rest any lingering doubts about the use of metal detectors in the city’s high schools. His view was that after the Tilden incident, everybody jumped on board. “From November 1992 to the present they’re in full compliance with the
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence metal detector program. Up until that point it was a tough sell…. The metal detector program flew off from that day on. All the excuses, all the talk about manning them, and the searches, all the different problems, from November 1992 and on, it was no longer a problem.” Tilden’s Principal Steward remembers the period somewhat differently, recalling that about five high schools still declined to install metal detectors after the shooting and complied only when they were required to do so. The Board of Education (Chicago Reporter, 1998) spent about $200,000 of its own funds on metal detectors from 1993 to 1998. The support of the Board of Education and the LSCs was buttressed further by the Chicago City Council. Less than a week after the Tilden shooting, the council approved Mayor Daley’s resolution that urged schools without metal detectors to take advantage of the offer to provide a detector to any school that wanted one. The Chicago Tribune reported some aldermen at the meeting “blasted school officials who have not installed the devices or are using them selectively.” STILL LATER The implementation of metal detectors was the first of a series of security and disciplinary initiatives endorsed by the school superintendent and the Chicago Board of Education. In 1995, the Board of Education adopted a new Uniform Disciplinary Code that mandated suspension and expulsion for certain offenses. The new policy was in response to the reauthorization of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which required states to pass laws requiring schools to expel for at least a year students who brought weapons to school. The Chicago Board of Education, like others across the country, saw this as the time to revise the Uniform Disciplinary Code, creating mandatory minimum penalties, often including extended suspensions for a variety of offenses, and requiring police referrals for serious instances of assault, battery, disorderly conduct, and other minor offenses and all instances of gang activity, drug violations, and more serious offenses. The resulting set of mandated punishments became collectively and popularly known as the zero tolerance policy. In subsequent years, the board further increased the penalties for certain offenses. Paul Vallas, who was Mayor Daley’s 1995 choice for superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, took a leadership role in advocating tough new penalties and policies. In spring 1997, with the encouragement of Vallas, the City Council made student involvement in drug and other serious offenses committed off school grounds subject to expulsion (March 11, 1997). In addition, in 1996 the board passed a resolution mandating that each school adopt a dress code and consider school
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence uniforms as an option. A sizable majority of Chicago public schools now have strict dress code policies. In February 2000, in the wake of the accidental shooting of an 11-year-old student at Duke Ellington Elementary School, Superintendent Vallas urged the daily use of metal detectors in elementary schools and ordered the purchase of 1,000 additional handheld metal detectors. By April 2000, not long after the discharge of a gun inside Parkside Elementary School, the proposed number of metal detectors had reached 4,000, to be combined with 178 additional off-duty police officers (allowing at least one off-duty Chicago officer in each elementary school), with the money to support these commitments to come from federal antipoverty funds. These school security initiatives reflect and reinforce an administration, under the proactive leadership of Paul Vallas, that centralized control over local school issues, especially from schools that, including Tilden, the administration had now placed on probation. It seems reasonable to ask whether the central administration would have felt empowered to impose or propose these measures on individual schools if the Tilden shooting had not so vividly set the disciplinary agenda in Chicago. There is no way to unequivocally answer this question. Still, the strong response from the mayor and the board to the Tilden shooting at least set a precedent of centralized control that was repeated regularly during the 1990s. THE IMPACT To more fully understand the impact of the Tilden incident for Chicago schools, one must examine the response of particular schools. Not-withstanding the significance of the centralized initiatives, in the decen-tralized context of Chicago public schools, change must also find support at the local level. Under the State Public Act 85-1418, each Chicago public school is permitted considerable discretion in determining how to prevent and discipline misconduct and crime. Furthermore, schools still vary in the manner and extent to which they implement mandates from the city and the central administration (Bryk et al., 1998). A logical starting point for our analysis is Tilden High School. Other schools responded in their own way to the incident and are discussed later. Meanwhile, the shooting dramatically and immediately changed several aspects of the school climate at Tilden. Most notably for our purposes, the shooting fostered an almost immediate emphasis on school security and violence prevention. Changes in security were evident nearly instantly. After the shooting, Principal Steward reestablished control of the situation by ordering everyone to report to their next classroom, under supervision of their
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence teachers. She then dealt with the arriving authorities, who included the police and the superintendent, as well as the press. Steward explains that she kept the students in the classrooms all day in order to prevent any retaliation for the shooting. According to Deputy Chief Thomas Byrne of the school patrol units, keeping the students in the classroom was imperative, so all students could be screened by metal detectors on their way out of the school building to find Joseph White’s gun. Despite these efforts, the murder weapon was never recovered. From that November afternoon forward, the metal detectors became fully operational at Tilden. Steward was quoted in the Chicago Tribune explaining that it took one and a half hours for all the students to file through the metal detectors on the Monday morning after the shooting, delaying the start of classes by more than an hour (November 27, 1992). Extra officers were assigned to Tilden after the shooting. Steward hired the staff necessary to run the detectors every day. While increasing school security was also Steward’s priority prior to the shooting, after the shooting she recalls immediately recruiting more volunteers from the community, who were also now more forthcoming. By January 1993, she had used the school’s discretionary funds to increase the number of paid full-time security “volunteers” (who were paid the minimum wage) from about 10 to about 42. Significantly, Steward reports recruiting these volunteers from the surrounding community, emphasizing that “I had more volunteers than I did staff, but it was because I used brothers, uncles, fathers, aunts, mothers, so they knew the kids” Steward reports complete support from teachers and the LSC for this action, even though the money could otherwise have been spent on improvements in instruction. The increase in policing and security coincided with a surge in arrest activity after the shooting. During the 49 school days immediately prior to the November 1992 shooting, 5 arrests were made at Tilden High School. In the same number of school days following the shooting, 17 arrests were made. Notably, some further short-term security assistance came from an unexpected source—the white community surrounding Tilden High School. She explains, “the community surrounded the school…. For several weeks the community showed up for security…. It was led by a Methodist minister…. They showed up in support of the school…. They patrolled outside the building, acting as security.” Steward also integrated the larger community into her programmatic efforts to prevent violence. On the Monday after the shooting, grief counselors were deployed to the school. Sixty students volunteered for grief counseling on the Monday after the shooting. Steward recalls that four crisis teams were operating in the school.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Several initiatives evolved into ongoing prevention programs at Tilden. In response to the shooting, Steward instituted a Rights of Passage Program for teachers and students. She maintains that this program, which emphasizes positive role-taking and leadership skills, empowered students and teachers to unite against gangs and seek alternatives to gang activity. Steward contends that problems of violence already had begun to decline prior to the Tilden shooting, but that these efforts precipitated further declines. Steward insists that other common weapons against school violence, suspensions and expulsions and more stringent screening of potential students, were not part of her arsenal. Tilden actually reported a decline in suspensions during the 1994–1995 school year. Nonetheless, a former substitute teacher who returned to teach at Tilden a couple of years after the shooting suggests that Steward found less formal ways to exclude gang members from the school. “I don’t think that they felt that they had to take just any student that came in off the street,” he explained, “And so I felt like there was a lot of … screening of students.” Steward disagrees and maintains that the gangs actually did not leave the school but rather “went underground” and shifted their activities to outside the school. She insists that the primary disciplinary changes she instituted were “hall sweeps” to remove students lingering in the halls. These students were informed of the school’s rules for hallways and classrooms and about the consequences of breaking them. “They could not bring their activities into the building,” she observes, “and if they did, then there were consequences including transferring out…. They didn’t want to go anywhere … and they knew I was serious.” Some of Steward’s efforts apparently caught the attention of others in the Chicago public school system. She recalls that other principals sought her help in implementing policies and programs in their schools. For instance, she reports she was asked to give workshops for other principals in “how to react when a crisis occurs.” Furthermore, other schools adopted some of her programs, including Rights of Passage. In fall 1995, Steward was appointed to the position of regional superintendent—a position that allowed her to mentor other principals on a full-time basis. As regional superintendent she was also authorized to oversee the disciplinary decisions, such as expulsions, that were imposed at schools in her region. BROADER IMPLICATIONS The previous sections addressed the question of whether the tragic shooting incident at Tilden high school had a lasting impact on the school and the system as a whole. We conclude based on our interviews with the
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence principal, teachers, and school board members that the incident clearly expanded the prevalence of metal detectors and the frequency of their use. We also conclude that the incident gave the mayor a new position of increased political leverage over school disciplinary policy matters. Installing metal detectors in all the high schools was an important accomplishment for the Daley administration. As explained, the metal detectors were the first of many successful efforts on the part of the mayor’s and the superintendent’s offices to increase their authority with regard to security and discipline in schools. The publicized school shootings, even some of those that took place outside of Chicago, incrementally widened a window of opportunity for the mayor’s and the superintendent’s offices to advance systemwide school safety initiatives. How do we make sense of the response to the Tilden shooting? Two sociologists, Burns and Crawford (1998), have analyzed official responses to well-publicized school shootings as a “moral panic.” We do not believe that this fully or accurately captures what happened in Chicago; nonetheless, this perspective raises important issues. Sociologists argue that a moral panic can occur when a large segment of the public and its leaders show a heightened concern about a problem and identify a particular behavior or group of people as the cause of the problem. The behavior or group thus pinpointed then becomes the target of policy intervention in response to public opinion and pressure, which is often mediated through the press. Burns and Crawford (1998) describe the policy response to school shootings in the 1990s as a moral panic, because the threat of shootings in schools is often exaggerated in the media, and because this exaggerated picture can stimulate a largely punitive policy response. The events preceding and following from the Tilden shooting do not fully fit the moral panic analysis. It may be true that the Tilden incident led to exaggerated impressions of the problems of actual weapons in schools or their frequent use. While the locker and metal detector searchers and other police activities did uncover a sizable number of knives and guns, and while surveys did indicate that students frequently brought weapons to school (Illinois Criminal justice Authority, 1991)—there was little evidence that students, especially innocent bystanders, were frequently victimized by students with weapons in Chicago schools. Killings almost never occurred in these schools, and they were not the kind of random shootings early accounts suggested. At Joseph White’s trial, it became fully apparent that this was a gang-related incident with ganginvolved causes and consequences that were specific and targeted. The title of a Chicago Tribune editorial two days after the shooting, “Body Count Rises in the Public Schools” and portrayals of the victims Delondyn
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Lawson and Ching Wilson as random bystanders, helped to form a distorted picture (November 24, 1992). A more convincing case could be made that routine fights were a serious problem that were disrupting learning in many schools. Indeed, a serious melee involving police and students caused a wall to collapse in another school on the same day as the Tilden incident. Accordingly, many board members were pushing for a greater emphasis on teaching nonviolent conflict resolution rather than for metal detectors. The net result is that while concerns about shootings, stabbings, and killings may have been somewhat exaggerated, concerns about violence in the high schools were not. The specific push for metal detectors is also not entirely consistent with the moral panic framework, in that it appeared to be a relatively measured response to concerns about violence in the neighborhood and guns in the school. Recall that the call for metal detectors was first made by Jesse Jackson and only subsequently taken up by Mayor Daley. Furthermore, in choosing this policy response, the mayor also sidestepped what many might have expected from a nonminority politician and former criminal prosecutor: a call to try Joseph White and others in the adult courts. This transfer to adult court was a decision made by prosecutors and with no public comment from the mayor. Nor does the moral panic framework adequately account for the long-term course of action on the part of the mayor and the board’s central office. It is clear from our observations that Mayor Daley and School Superintendents Kimbrough and later Vallas did not push for metal detectors merely to allay the public concern about school violence. Rather, the metal detectors were more clearly a part of the longer-term ambition of the administration to centralize the setting of school security and disciplinary policy and to make schools accountable to the administration. Other organizational and political interests were also served by the metal detectors. Some of our respondents emphasized that the detectors, which provided more arrest opportunities, helped to make the school police feel safer, while also providing more work for off-duty police officers—which helped the mayor to gain support from the Chicago Police Department. Subsequent actions of the mayor and the superintendent also do not fit neatly into the moral panic framework. It seems that some incidents, such as the accidental shooting in the Duke Ellington Elementary School and the discharge of a weapon in Parkside Elementary School did not generate an outpouring of public concern that could be characterized as a moral panic. Still, these incidents did provide further examples of unresolved problems that the mayor and the superintendent could point to in reinforcing their calls for more security in the Chicago public schools. The school board security initiatives in the later 1990s, especially the zero
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence tolerance policies, occurred after the heightened anxiety over the Tilden shooting had largely subsided. It might have made more sense in the context of reduced and declining violence to reassure the public—after each of these accidental shootings, or after each incident on the national stage, such as the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado—that Chicago schools were now largely free of shootings, and indeed never did experience the kinds of random rampages experienced in less urbanized American settings. This possibility merits more attention than it has yet received in drawing lessons from the Tilden High School and subsequent Chicago experiences. Still, it is noteworthy that nearly 800 weapons were confiscated in Chicago public schools between January 1987 and October 1990. Since the Tilden incident, no student has been killed—and apparently only one shot (accidentally)—inside a Chicago public school (February 15, 2000). Deputy Byrne attributes this fact to the metal detectors as well as to the concerted effort on the part of the school patrol units, which began before the Tilden shootings, to make arrests for crime in or near schools. Byrne summarized his view of the issue by observing that “God only knows how many crimes we prevented through all the guns that we confiscated and arrests that we made.” At least one other member of the school board we interviewed also attributes the absence of any school shootings to the metal detectors. Indeed, this board member also credits the metal detectors with declines in problems of gang intimidation, as students harbored less fear of gang members. The nine-year hiatus in fatal shootings may seem remarkable for a public school system in a city the size of Chicago, especially in light of recurrent national anxieties about school shootings since the mid-1990s. Still, the claim that metal detectors deserve the credit cannot be accepted uncritically. First, one must rule out the possibility that this outcome would have been achieved in the absence of any policy changes. While this possibility may seem remote on its face, it bears note that killings in schools and other in-school shootings actually were rare in the several years prior to the Tilden incident as well. A search of the archives of the Chicago Tribune since 1985 revealed only one murder inside a Chicago public school prior to the Tilden incident—and these were years in which the juvenile homicide rate in Chicago was higher than it was during most of the 1990s. Second, one must rule out competing explanations for the absence of school shootings. As mentioned, Chicago police officers had been assigned to patrol the city’s high schools since September 1990. In addition, the Board of Education doubled their security budget, helping schools hire more security guards. Many improvements to the physical condi
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence tions of school facilities also occurred during this period. The wave of exclusionary policies, which began with the zero tolerance disciplinary code in 1995 and included other policies, such as increased alternative schooling for youths with disciplinary problems, may also have played a role. However, as Hazel Steward observed, exclusion of students was very common before the zero tolerance initiative began. In the earlier period, exclusion was accomplished informally, as problem students were simply “told not to come back” and were recorded as dropouts. The observations of Principal Steward at Tilden High School remind us that individual schools adopted a variety of approaches to steer their students away from gangs, drugs, and violence. A full explanation of why Chicago public schools now seem so remarkably safe must take into account not only the policy response from above, in the mayor’s and superintendent’s offices, but also from below. The leaders in the trenches of Chicago public schools responded to the tragedy of Tilden High School with courage and innovation. Joseph White is still serving the first quarter of his 45 year sentence for the Tilden shooting, at Menard State Prison in Southern Illinois, 300 miles south of the school where it happened. Even if he is paroled after serving half of his sentence, the child he fathered before being incarcerated will be an adult before Joseph White leaves prison. This part of his life is lost forever. His mother was the first to say the shooting was a tragedy for everyone involved. REFERENCES Barrett, J. 1987 Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894-1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Bennett, W., J. Dilulio and J. Walters 1996 Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs. New York: Simon & Schuster. Block, C.R., and C. Martin 1997 Updated Graphs: Major Trends in Chicago Homicide: 1965-1995. Chicago: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. Blumstein, A., and R. Rosenfeld 1998 Explaining recent trends in U.S. homicide rates. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 86:10–36. Bryk, A., P. Sebring, D. Kerbow, S. Rollow and J. Easton 1998 Charting Chicago School Reform: Democratic Localism as a Lever for Change. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Burns, R., and C. Crawford 1998 School shootings, the media and public fear: Ingredients for a moral panic. Crime, Law & Social Change 32:147–168.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Chicago Area Geographic Information Study (CAGIS) 1990 New City Data Source. Available at: http://www.cagis.uic.edu/demographics/demographics_intro.html [Accessed 8/13/2002] and New City Community Area Map. Available at http://www.cagis.uic.edu/cgi-bin/camap_get [Accessed 8/13/2002]. Chicago Commission on Human Relations 1922 The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Cohen, L. 1990 Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Fox, J.A. 1995 Presentation to the meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Atlanta, GA. Hagan, J. and H. Foster 2000 Making corporate and criminal America less violent: Public norms and structural reforms. Contemporary Sociology, February, 44–53. Halpern, R. 1997 Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Packinghouses, 1904–1954. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Halpern, R., and R. Horowitz 1996 Meatpackers: An Oral History of Black Packinghouse Workers and their Struggle for Racial and Economic Equality. New York: Monthly Review Press. Illinois Criminal Justice Authority 1991 Trends and Issues 91: Education and Criminal Justice in Illinois. Chicago: Criminal Justice Authority. Knox, G. 1992 Schools Under Siege. Dubuque, IA: Hunt. Short, J.F., and F. Strodtbeck 1965 Group Process and Gang Delinquency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Sinclair, U. 1995 The Jungle. Chicago: Grosset and Dunlop. Slayton, R. 1986 Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Stephens, R. 1992 Congressional testimony: Weapons in school. National School Safety Center. October 1, 1992. Suttles, G. 1968 The Social Order of the Slum: Ethnicity and Territory in the Inner City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Thrasher, F. 1927 The Gang. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Yablonsky, L. 1997 Gangsters: Fifty Years of Madness, Drugs, and Death on the Streets of America. New York: New York University Press.
Representative terms from entire chapter: