Last year the number of murders in Chicago declined by 5 percent, but there’s a disturbing side to that good news: 11 percent more teenagers were killed and about the same number were shot and injured as in 2009, according to statistics from the Chicago Police Department.

That’s 588 shooting victims and 68 murder victims between the ages of 13 and 18. Most of the murders involved firearms.

This news happened the same time Chicago Public Schools was implementing a $50 million two-year project designed to help keep its students safe outside of school. CPS officials point out that, during last school year, the number of shootings and murders of students in CPS schools declined.  But their numbers do not include the incidents that happened during the summer months, or those that involved school-age children who were not in CPS schools.

District officials remain passionate about their violence prevention program, dubbed Culture of Calm, and Michael Shields, director of safety and security—and a former Chicago police officer—says he believes the district has created an “infrastructure” that keeps more children safe.

The program is born out of former CEO Ron Huberman’s innovative idea that, through statistics, he could predict which students were in danger of being involved in shootings. By providing them with intensive services, Huberman planned to keep them out of harm’s way.

To that end, he funded two programs: one to provide advocates for the most vulnerable students and another to provide mentors to those deemed to be less at-risk. Also, community groups were given grants to do safety patrols in neighborhoods, keeping watch over students as they arrived at and left school.

Under Culture of Calm, some high schools were given coordinators whose only job was organizing programs and keeping tabs on troubled students.

Shields says that police and principals are sharing more intelligence and that has been one of the best outcomes of the program.

But he’s quick to admit that parts of the program need work. “Everything we do is a work in progress,” Shields says.

In short order, Shields and CPS leaders will have to make some decisions about what elements, if any, are worthwhile and which are not. The program was funded with federal stimulus money, which will run out at the end of this school year. With the federal money closing out and with the state facing another big deficit, the district will face an estimated deficit of more than $700 million.

This tight timeline will ultimately only give a glimpse into whether culture of calm can be successful. Huberman announced the program at the outset of last school year. It took the bulk of the year to design the details and to issue requests for proposals to get organizations on board to do the work. Contracts for community organizations to provide safety patrols and mentoring for the less-at-risk were only awarded at the end of last school year, and the work began in September 2010.

CPS officials say they are hearing good things about these programs. At a meeting held late last year between Shields and students from the Mikva Challenge, a non-profit that helps CPS students get involved in civic activities, several teens said the climate at their high schools had improved since the culture of calm initiative began.

But hard data is still elusive, with only two quarters of grades and attendance for mentees and a survey currently being conducted to gauge whether students feel safer with the patrols.

Only one part of the program really got underway during last school year. Huberman and his team hand-picked Youth Advocate Programs Inc., the Pennsylvania-based social service agency that would provide intensive mentoring to students considered ultra-at-risk, and the agency was given a contract in November of 2009.

And Youth Advocate Programs Inc. didn’t get up and running right away either. Last year, the agency spent just $3 million of the $5 million it was originally awarded, says Jonathan Moy, the CPS liaison for YAP. In November 2010, at Huberman’s last board meeting, members approved an additional $7 million contract for the agency.

Not only did it take the better part of the 2009-2010 school year to hire the advocates and carry out background checks, but the district also had to find the students. The young people were not sitting in school, waiting for help, Moy says. When CPS staff went to look for them, they weren’t easy to find. Some had moved. Others were in jail.

Also, some young people and their families didn’t want anything to do with the program. “Some of the kids were like ‘Screw you,’ ” says Moy, who notes that similar programs run by YAP in other states are operated through juvenile probation departments and are compulsory.

In the end, only about half of the 250 targeted youth signed up.

Moy says CPS officials then began looking to a second, longer list of young people who were identified as high risk—though not ultra-at-risk. They also got principal referrals and even allowed the brothers of some the young people to receive services also. This year, more than 300 teenagers are involved.

“Sometimes we would have a mom who said, “You can try to help him, but you won’t make any real progress if you don’t help his brother,” Moy says.

At first, local community groups were skeptical that YAP could make a difference and thought that organizations with deep roots in neighborhoods would be better suited. With many groups getting funding to do safety patrols and mentoring, that criticism has been tamped down.

Yet there are some in the violence prevention community that still question the focus of CPS’ violence prevention effort.

Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, says that he is not against YAP, but worries that it is too narrowly focused to make a dent in the problem.

Rather than focus on a small number of students, CeaseFire takes a more holistic approach. CeaseFire is often called by principals to come in and defuse conflicts. They also work in the schools to change the way students think about violence. “We need the kids saying to each other, ‘We don’t even do that around here anymore,’ ” Hardiman says.

He says that the CeaseFire method can work in parallel to the mentoring and advocate programs inside of schools. Hardiman notes that violence interruption has proven to work, yet he’s had trouble securing CPS funds.

While Huberman pitched Culture of Calm as a violence prevention program, officials now say the test of its success should not be whether it has lowered the number of young people shot or killed. Instead it should be whether the targeted students attend school more, stay out of trouble in school and get better grades.

Moy says the advocate program has already produced results. Of the 250 students that got advocates last year, Moy says they rapidly improved by coming to school more and not acting out as much. Last year, among those with advocates, there was a 5 percent increase in attendance and a 34 percent decrease in serious misconducts, according to Moy. 

 “We could put an infinite amount of resources in place and the unfortunate reality is that, because of their life circumstances, they will be shot,” Moy says.

April Curtis, a program manager for YAP , says she sees the question in another way. “The better question is, who hasn’t been shot?”

Curtis says that three young people in her caseload were shot last year but none died. One of the shootings was over a bike. Two of them were random shootings, but, because of the threat in the neighborhood, Curtis worked to relocate the families and CPS allowed the students to transfer for safety reasons.

Curtis insists that the program’s value rests in young people being protected. “I am not just talking about one of our clients who didn’t get shot, but also our clients who didn’t shoot,” she says.

When an advocate enrolls a young person who hasn’t been in school for months and he attends three days a week, that’s three days that he is in school and safe, Curtis points out.

Also, when a teenager goes on an outing or has dinner at home with mom or calls an advocate when trouble is brewing, he or she is protected. “We had a client call us after a heated altercation and say, ‘I need space, I need to get out of here,’ ” she says. “We were able to help him.”

Curtis tells the story of one young man who held his brother in his arms as he died. His mother is a crack addict and in order to get the consent form signed, the advocate had to find the mother in a crack house. “The one thing the mother said to us is be consistent with my son,” Curtis recounts.

For young people like this, Curtis worries about the program vanishing after this year.

“There’s no good way to walk away from a program like this,” she says.

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Editors note: Catalyst-Chicago is not responsible for the Google advertising on this page.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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