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.