'A suicide bombing mentality'

 

A LEGACY OF VIOLENCE | Blockaded streets, security guards, cops, cameras can't keep a lid on tensions fueled by decades of gang rivalry at Crane High School

 

March 17, 2008

 


 

Four minutes.

 

In just four minutes at Crane High School on March 7, one student was shot dead, another was beaten so badly he may never talk again, and a third was stomped so hard he suffered a seizure.

 

For four minutes, the gangs took over -- and every measure to protect students failed.

 

The blockaded streets. The beefy security guards. The dozen squad cars. The five police cameras within a block of the school.

 

"It's like a suicide bombing mentality," said Crane Principal Richard Smith. "Broad daylight, everybody out there knows you, yet you walk through a blocked-off street, through police cars, raise a gun and shoot someone, and walk away.

 

"These gangs have been fighting for a long time. And this is the result of it. The personal vendetta is just that strong."

 

Decades of gang rivalry

 

Crane, at 2245 W. Jackson, has drawn generations of kids from four housing developments -- the Chicago Housing Authority's ABLA Homes, Henry Horner Homes and Rockwell Gardens that are being torn down and rebuilt, and the private St. Stephen's Terrace. Each is dominated by a different gang.

 

That means students arrive at the fortress-like school on the edge of the Eisenhower lugging tensions fueled by decades of gang rivalry.

 

And at any time, those tensions can combust, drawing in students and outside gang members who hang out there to fight their battles.

 

"You can't just tell these students: Don't do drugs, and don't gang-bang," Smith says as he walks Crane's brightly painted hallways, occasionally stopping to snap, "Take your hat off!" to a young man. Or, "Where are you supposed to be?" to a young woman.

 

"We need to provide real alternatives -- exposure to other things besides what they see in their West Side community," he said.

 

The rapid-fire burst of violence March 7 was a reminder of just how hard it is to come up with those alternatives and to stem a death toll among Chicago Public Schools students that stands at 18 so far this school year.

 

That Friday, around 10 a.m. in the second-floor hallway, a fight had broken out between two boys over an expensive hat called a Buck Fifty. Crane staff did what they always do -- break it up, disperse students, suspend the boys, send them home.

 

Things got quiet after that -- too quiet.

 

"You get a vibe when something just doesn't seem right," Smith said. "You won't be able to put your finger on it, but it's just a feeling that something is unusual."

 

"Especially when they're quiet," said Crane Assistant Principal Christopher Robbins.

 

The day ended without further incident inside the school. Then the bell rang, and students flooded out onto Jackson .

 

Three minutes later, Ruben Ivy, an 18-year-old junior, was confronted by teens a half block from school. One, a Crane student, exchanged words and used gang language. Ivy raised both hands in the air and said he wasn't interested. The kid pulled a gun and shot Ivy in the chest -- killing him -- then turned and walked away.

 

Two minutes later, Shondara Hairl, 15, walked out of the school doors. A young man who was not a student stormed the steps, grabbed him and threw him to the ground. As other students screamed that Hairl had nothing to do with anything going on, the man bashed Hairl's head with a two-iron golf club. Hairl remains in critical condition at Stroger Hospital .

 

Two more minutes passed. Then Edwin Gilmore, 17, crossed Jackson directly across the street from the school, where a group of men were waiting and harassed Gilmore and a friend. There was a scuffle. Gilmore and the friend ran. Gilmore fell. Suddenly, the men were on him, stomping his head and body so badly he suffered a seizure.

 

"One of the most difficult things you have to do is look a parent in the eye and tell them something happened to a student they left with you," said Robbins.

 

'You're labeled there'

 

The attacks took place in full view of a slew of police officers and police cameras -- necessities when your school is the intersection of several neighborhood gangs.

 

ABLA -- also known as "the Village" -- is a reputed stronghold of the New Breeds. At Henry Horner, there are the BDs and Four Corner Hustlers. At Rockwell, the Traveling Vice Lords. And at St. Stephen's, the Vice Lords.

 

"Since the existence of Crane, there has always been a thing between the Village kids and Rockwell and Horner. It's nothing new," said Delilah Smith, the mother of Devonte Smith, 15, the Crane student charged with shooting Ivy.

 

A resident of ABLA, she and the victim's mother both attended Crane. Smith is a 1992 graduate. Ivy's mother, Emily Green, graduated in 1984.

 

"You're labeled there: Wherever you're from, that's what gang they assume you're with," said Green, whose family is from Rockwell.

 

Smith and his staff tell stories of coming out of school at dismissal time to find one gang at the east corner of Jackson with baseball bats and another at the west corner because something went down in school during the day.

 

"There's always something brewing," Smith said. "And cell phones are killing us. If there's an incident, the first thing they do is pick up the phone, call their boys and tell them so and so did such and such, and they come up to school.

 

So how do you protect the children? You put in place a detailed external security plan, said Smith.

 

By the time the bell rings, mobile blockades have blocked all traffic but buses from

Jackson Boulevard
.

 

An agreement with the CTA has buses waiting for students before they exit.

 

School security guards are at each bus stop, herding kids onto buses and off the streets.

 

At every corner -- the school is bounded by Jackson, Oakley, Van Buren and Leavitt -- Crane staffers hurry every one to their destinations.

 

Local School Council parents stand out front, hustling students homeward.

 

Then there are the 10 to 14 Chicago Police Department squad cars that bring 20 to 27 officers each day to surround the school.

 

And five police cameras within a block each way of campus.

 

And still, sometimes, the old tensions can turn deadly.

 

"It's like the Hatfields and McCoys," Smith says. "It usually turns out they don't even know why they're fighting."