CHICAGO — Demetrius was playing in the park by his school when he heard the gunshots. They came fast, and close, as his panicked mother rushed him into the car.
They soon learned the victim was Tyshawn Lee, a 9-year-old boy shot and killed at point-blank range in the nearby alley. He and Demetrius, also 9 at the time, were good friends.
Even in a neighborhood where gun violence is so common that children often walk past police tape on their way to school, Tyshawn’s death weighed heavily on Demetrius. The day after the homicide, he balled himself up in the corner of his room, rocking back and forth and repeating that he was scared for his life, his mother recalled.
Students in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods deal with a kind of trauma that’s unfathomable to most people who have grown up in safe communities: gun violence, housing instability, domestic strife. And yet they have less access to health and mental wellness services than many of their peers in wealthier families and neighborhoods.
That soon could change. An 11-day Chicago teachers strike that ended Oct. 31 has won teachers a contract that includes one of their foremost demands: increases to support staff, and in particular, a social worker and a nurse in every school.
Will it be enough to help the neediest students manage their social and emotional health so that they can learn? Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her team have said the labor pool for both of those workers isn’t large enough to meet the union’s request. The district will soon find out.
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For now, Chicago Public Schools employs 341 full-time social workers and 273 full-time nurses in its more than 500 district-run schools. The national recommended ratio for students to social workers in regular schools is 250-to-1. In CPS, even if you estimate that the pool of public-school children to be in the neighborhood of 300,000, that ratio would be well over 850- to-1.
That’s part of the reason why teachers maintained support from parents during the strike. They, too, said their children need more mental health support staff in schools.
“If you’re a kid and you just seen somebody get shot and killed … you’re not thinking about your classroom work,” said Lakeisha Alexander, the mother of Demetrius. “You’re not thinking about none of that. You’re thinking — what’s going to happen when I leave out of school?”
‘My kids feel like they’re going to die’
Three of Alexander’s children attend Joplin Elementary, just a few blocks from the family’s home in Auburn Gresham, on the city’s far Southwest Side. Joplin’s more than 400 students are almost all black and low-income, and 14% have special needs, which often take the form of emotional or behavior disorders.
Demetrius met Tyshawn in the third grade. They played basketball together in school and after school, at the nearby Dawes Park; Tyshawn dreamed of playing in the NBA. When Demetrius struggled in computer class, Tyshawn helped him.
One November afternoon in 2015, when Tyshawn went to the park near Joplin to play basketball, an older man struck up a conversation with him, dribbled his basketball and lured him into an alley. The man shot Tyshawn at close range in retaliation against his father, who is an alleged ranking member of a rival gang.
“When it first happened, I was crying and stuff,” Demetrius said recently as he remembered that afternoon. He and his family had joined teachers on the picket lines at Joplin on the second day of their strike.
Now 13, Demetrius wore a Nike sweatshirt and jeans and watched his two younger siblings as they ran along the sidewalk. Tyshawn “was funny and fun to play with,” he added.
On the day of Tyshawn’s funeral, Demetrius brought a basketball to place by his friend’s casket. “You’ll always be my friend,” he wrote on the basketball. “See you later.”
After Tyshawn’s death, CPS sent a crisis intervention team to Joplin, and a health center staffed by the University of Illinois made social workers available. These days, a nurse and social worker come to the school only once a week, Alexander said.
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Feeling that her children needed more mental health support after the shooting, Alexander began taking her kids to therapy.
“What (the psychiatrist) had to tell me was, my kids feel like they’re going to die, ” Alexander said. “They said they want to die because everybody’s getting killed. Demetrius said he wants to die in his sleep. He just wants to die in his sleep so it doesn’t hurt.”
In 2016, the year after Tyshawn’s death, Chicago witnessed a surge of gun violence. A disproportionate amount of that violence occurred in a handful of neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. But for the past two years, shootings and homicides have been declining in Chicago, and 2019 is on track to continue the trend.
CPS runs 15 schools in Auburn Gresham, a community that witnessed more than 300 incidents of violent gun crime in 2018, according to city data analyzed by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Alexander believes the frequency of shootings in the neighborhood make it difficult for her children to focus in school.
In fact, Joplin has been locked down more than once over the years as people shoot each other outside.
“The kids feel like it’s PTSD, and it shouldn’t be like when they hear freaky fire crackers or they hear a bang, it’s hit the floor,” Alexander said.
A demand for social workers
Social workers, counselors and case managers help children handle their emotions so they can try to keep learning amid the turbulence.
Tom Tebbe, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Social Workers, said the job requires helping students understand and manage their behavioral reactions to the trauma they’re facing.
He said social workers also help children’s parents understand how to support them.
“If they’re acting out because of trauma or depression, they can’t learn,” he said.
Last year, Vicky Delgado, 26, a CPS social worker at a predominatly Hispanic, 900-student school on the southwest side, worked closely with three students who witnessed a shooting one block from their school. She helped them develop coping skills.
“Sometimes our students don’t have somebody to go to to process things they see in their neighborhoods, or at home, or social situations at school,” Delgado said. “We’re here to help them process the situations so it’s not distracting them from their learning.”
Tebbe said that Lightfoot and her team are correct: There are not enough social workers for every school at the moment.
But, he said, the state recently relaxed a requirement for would-be social workers to take a mandated basic skills test, which he said was keeping some people from pursuing the field. Already, he said, universities have seen an uptick in their training programs.
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CPS actually increased the number of social workers in schools in the past year, after a previous district leader trimmed their ranks two years ago, said Emily Penn, another district school social worker who is on the union’s bargaining team.
She said the district desperately needs more.
The first weekend after the teachers strike, Penn started her morning at Marshall High School on the city’s West Side, where a student had been killed over the weekend.
Then she traveled to the picket lines of her own westside school, Lawndale Elementary, only to learn that three different students were shot on the school’s playground the day before. At the time, nobody knew if they were Lawndale students or not.
“This is a normalized experience,” Penn said, holding back tears.
‘They’re seeing too much’
Social workers don’t just sit in their offices, either. At least not in urban schools where the needs are high.
Many come straight into classrooms to support kids they’re working with. Erin Matthews, a veteran social worker in CPS, said it often comes down to asking whether they’re making good decisions. Or whether they have a pencil to do their work.
“We’re like, ‘I know you’re having a bad day, but you have to get this done,’” Matthews said. “It’s knowing what’s going on with them personally that lets you help them get over these daily hurdles.”
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Matthews has also run rape support groups for teenage girls. There are more than she can accommodate. Sometimes she’s accompanied girls to the hospital after they report they’ve been assaulted.
Because she often can’t tell teachers exactly what’s going on, she has a line she uses to communicate the severity of a student’s ordeal:
“Trust me,” she tells them, “if it was you, you wouldn’t be at work today.”
As for Demetrius, he’s still working to “unball his anger,” as his mom puts it, over Tyshawn’s killing.
In the past four years since Tyshawn’s death, Demetrius has distanced himself from friends and family. In that time he’s also lost three uncles, a cousin, and at least 10 friends to gun crimes, Alexander said.
“There’s supposed to be someone here for these kids to talk to,” Alexander said. “They’re seeing too much in the neighborhoods.”