American Morning

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December 15th, 2009
06:00 AM ET

Walk in My Shoes: Why teens fight

Editor's Note: This week American Morning is examining the causes of youth-on-youth violence across the country. Yesterday, in part one of the series, "Walk in My Shoes," we talked to one of the teens who participated in the brawl that left a 16-year-old boy dead. Tomorrow, we walk to school with two students and witness the dangers they face every day.

Across the country, teen violence is ripping apart families and entire communities. The CDC says 16 teens and young adults are murdered in America every single day, and many are killed by someone their own age.

We wanted to understand why so many are turning to violence. Our T.J. Holmes talked with some high school students on Chicago's South Side to get inside their heads.

T.J.: How many in this group – you can give me a show of hands if you want to – how many of you in the past year have been in a fight? A physical altercation of some kind?

[All students raise hands]

T.J.: All five of you in the past year have been in a fight of some kind?

Kevin: Last September for me.

T.J.: More than one? Anybody in this group?

Gregory: A couple of weeks ago for me.

For these Chicago teens, fighting is a way of life.

Kevin: It's like that every day in school. It's not a day you don't see somebody bumping somebody and get into an argument. Over petty stuff.

T.J.: Why is that so important to be big man on campus?

Kevin: It's the image. People try to keep the image and their reputation. Like if you a big guy you gonna try to keep that reputation. So if somebody bump you gonna automatically say something to them. Because you gonna feel like in your head that you just got treated like a punk.

T.J.: Has anything gotten more serious?

Starnsca: With me once I got jumped. I was by myself. I found myself fighting 15 girls and then they was like, “Yeah ok, we gonna spare your life today” and that scared me.

What these teens tell us is not unusual. In fact, nearly 40 percent of Chicago public school students were involved in a physical fight, according to a 2007 Chicago youth risk behavior survey.

“High school is about young people scrambling for power and influence,” says Lila Leff, the founder of Umoja, a program that, in part, tries to stem teen violence. She says kids are vying for power and prestige – everywhere.

“In some high schools the currency is how much money your parents make. Or what car you're going to drive when you're 16. Or what college you're going to get into because you're taking five AP classes. And in some places the currency is your reputation.”

Because for many of these teens "a reputation" is all they have.

According to the CPS Office of Federal Legislative Affairs, 85% of Chicago public school students live below the poverty line. Gangs, guns and drugs are all too common in poor neighborhoods.

TJ: Have you all witnessed some kind of violence, shooting?

Everyone: I have, I have.

Gregory: It happens every day. And it be mostly over petty stuff.

For these teens, the daily threat of violence is all too real.

T.J.: Woah wait. You all have to carry, you carry stuff around when you're outside?

Starr: I carry a taser and mace.

Amber: I carry a mace, box cutter and scissors.

These teens have developed a tough exterior in order to survive.

“In my house if somebody told you, what you looking at you ain't say nothing back, you ain't fight them, then you a punk. And I hear that 24/7 in the house. If I told my mom I got into an argument with a girl and you didn't fight her, then get yourself out of my scary face then. It's all about the reputation,” says Amber Ward.

An attitude Dr. Carl Bell, an expert on youth violence, says is no surprise.

“The parent is scared something is going to happen to the kid and that fear turns into anger and that anger is transmitted to the kid and the kid is told defend yourself. Because if you are a punk people are going to try you.”

Leff's program, Umoja, tries to change that thinking – teaching students leadership skills to help resolve conflicts without fighting. These five teens say it's helping them.

“I learned how to control myself,” says Amber Ward.

Amber was suspended 15 times for getting into fights during her freshman year. Now a junior, she says she's worked hard to keep trouble at bay.

“I started looking at a lot of situations different. I started looking at a lot of fights different like when people come to me I'm like 'think', I be stopping while we arguing, I'll be thinking am I mad, like ok is fighting her really worth it? You get 10 days out of school and it's not even worth it.

Filed under: Crime • Walk in My Shoes
soundoff (108 Responses)
  1. Lindsey

    For those of you that are blaming the schools, tell me: How are schools supposed to function well when the parents don't give a flip about their children? How are schools supposed to force parents to bring their children to school on time, in seasonally appropriate clothing, clean and fed? How are schools supposed to force parents to put their children to bed at a decent hour so that they can be well-rested enough to learn? I've had students tell me, on the day of the big state test, that they're nervous because they're really tired. When I ask them why they're so tired, they tell me that their parents wanted to go see a friend the night before so they were out until 1:30am on a school night.

    Add all of that to a culture that tells children that education is for losers or white people only, add that to a culture that actively teaches their children to be violent, and you have a hot mess. Schools can only control so much.

    Think of it this way: would you win the Indy 500 with a car that had flat tires, needed a tune-up, and didn't have a full tank of gas? That's how some of these children come to school.

    These kids need hope. They need to know that they are loved. They need to be shown that violence will get them nowhere. They need all of these things starting at a very young age, and they need to get them from the people that gave them life.

    I grew up poor. I understand eating ramen for dinner and watching your mom say that she's not hungry when in reality she's skipping dinner because otherwise the kids won't get enough to eat. I understand living in a bad neighborhood because it's all your single mom can afford. I get that. The difference is, my mother made SURE I was educated, and she made SURE we kids knew that we were the number 1 priority in her life. We had plenty of hardships, but none of us hurt or killed another kid. Because of her sacrifice, I have a college education and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. If my mom can do it all while running from an abusive ex, why can't others?

    December 16, 2009 at 10:35 am |
  2. ryan

    I am a sophmore at T.C. Willams high school (yes it is the one from the movie) and in the first month of school we had 30 fights in or in very close proximity to school. The adminastration threated to cancel homecoming and a whole host of other events if the collective act was not cleaned up and it was through all of november we had no fights. Then we had our first pep rally. All was well durring the rally then school went out for the day and because no one wants to miss their bus there was a very large group of people on their way out and thats when all hell broke lose people must have felt offended to be touched in the middle of the group and 3 fights stated and its just so childish and all of the fights we have had are for all of the aforementioned reasons. Our school may look like new nice and better then all the inter-city schools in D.C. but, on the inside we are the exact same.

    December 16, 2009 at 10:05 am |
  3. A.Chenoweth

    I still have a lot of problems with the way this story has been reported, and the background template that hasn't been used to put it into a real and enlightening context. For example, where is the interview with the local Chicago leader, Jesse Jackson? Jackson and Al Sharpton will show up at a protest but only as long as a black person has been hurt by a white person. But when a black is killed by a black, they don't show up–and that is a tacit devaluation of black Americans' lives. The reporter should ask those hypocrites, Where is the Peace March in this hood? If black-on-black crime were all laid out across the border of two African nations, it would be called a genocide–and it movie stars would mention it at the Oscars. Sadly, the violence is cultural, and condoned by the narcissistic indifference of leaders like Jackson. Still more sadly, some years ago, a few high school kids in Baltimore unable to read were sent to Africa for summer school. All they had was a school house, a bible, and nothing outside but savannah. And in a few months, they had learned to read, and were behaving well. Conclusion: this violence is human but also cultural, and it will not change until leaders like Jackson, et. al. talk it up in church and get the masses to turn around the way they think and raise their kids.

    December 16, 2009 at 9:18 am |
  4. Catherine

    African? Did you emigrate from Africa? My family name is Norweigan and the first one came over in the mid 1700s. I am not Norweigan or Norweigan-American. I am American. If you want to be African, go back to Africa. All those silly people who flew the Cuban flag and not an American one in Miami during the Elian Gonzales debacle need to decide where their loyalties lie. I accept people of all races who want to be Americans but question those who are here and claim to be something else. Knowing African history (that's a big continent with many cultures) is excellent but don't forget who you are. You are an American of African (and probably other) lineage. Be proud of it. Semantics matter.

    Inner city black kids need to do a year in Kenya or Sudan or Ethiopia or Somalia or South Africa to appreciate the value of the free education they are offered and piss away in the USA. Maybe we should exchange the kids from those Chicago schools for kids from African countries who will take advantage of the public schools. I doubt they will be truant and fighting and not paying attention.

    December 16, 2009 at 8:59 am |
  5. Gina

    I can see why the drop out rate is high for the Chicago school district. You have to praise those children who DO show up for school on a daily basis. Its like living in Afghanistan every day for them. I grew up in the 80's in Southwestern Ohio and remember leaving to go to school in the dark and returning from school in the dark. Along the way you learn something "new" before you even get to the school bus stop to go to school. Unfortunately, it can make you a paranoid adult. I just pray that they continue to strive to finish school.

    December 16, 2009 at 7:43 am |
  6. TammyJo

    People in the community should be volunteering to walk these kids to and from school. If I lived in Chicago, or another city where this is an issue, that's what I would be doing.

    December 16, 2009 at 7:42 am |
  7. Mentoria Horn

    Good Morning TJ,

    I just saw your exert on" walk in my shoes." It brought tears to my eyes seeing that 16 year old girl trying to walk home, saying that a good day is a safe day home. It is truly sad that our children are not only already behind other countries in education, but their focus has to be on safety. We love our children and we need to do something!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 16, 2009 at 7:39 am |
  8. amanda

    I truly believe that the problem in our country today is the ignorance and lack of concern to understand concepts such as present and historical institutionalized discrimination that has pre- disadvantaged these children and adolescents. Laws implemented years ago that caused neighborhood segregation in turn created unequal opportunities for individuals due to race and socioeconomic status. Education is a key contributor to upward mobility in our society. Unfortunately there is not equal opportunities for adolescents that attend inner city schools to obtain the same education as adolescent that attends a predominately middle class suburban school. We need to collectively come together and stop viewing issues that have been institutionally caused through only our own eye and view them through the eyes of another.

    December 15, 2009 at 6:56 pm |
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