Teresa Crawford / AP

Soaring violence scars minds of Chicago kids, but help stretched thin

Four crisis counselors care for 400,000 schoolkids amid Chicago's spiraling violence, teachers' union says

As Chicago grapples with a dramatic spike in homicides, the city’s teachers union this week said schools face a staggering shortage of counselors trained to help students cope with the trauma of losing classmates and family members to the violence.

There are four crisis counselors assigned to the 400,000 students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) said. By contrast, the Los Angeles Unified School District, a similar-sized system, said it has about 150 social workers, nurses and counselors designated to help kids suffering from traumatic events.

The death this week of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee — shot multiple times in a Chicago South Side alley, in what police have called an execution — has cast a spotlight on the issue. Intentional shootings of young children are uncommon but not unheard-of in Chicago, where 100 children under age 17 have been shot dead since 2001, according to a Chicago Tribune tally. Twenty-seven of the victims were under age 10.

Pam Bosley, who counsels children about violence at St. Sabina Faith Community Church, said that the city doesn’t do enough to help kids who lose friends or classmates, and that the trauma often leaves lasting scars.

“They’ll have this illness for a lifetime,” said Bosley, whose 18-year-old son Terrell died in a random shooting in 2006 as he unloaded music equipment at a South Side church.

Bosley said the low number of crisis counselors means CPS only provides students with counseling help in the days immediately following a violent death. She said the school system should provide long-term counseling.

“How do you think you can talk to these kids for one or two days and everything’s OK?" she said.

CPS “has for years used a 'crisis' team that works out of central office to help with grief counseling, but that team has shrunk over the years,” said Stephanie Gadlin, a spokeswoman for the teachers’ union. “Back in 2008 there were eight [counselors], and this fall there seem to be just four staffed as part of the citywide crisis coordination team.”

CPS did not respond to Al Jazeera interview requests.

Gadlin said that Lee’s school, Scott Joplin Elementary, has one social worker on duty one-and-a-half days a week, and that its guidance counselor doubles as a special education case manager. A 2012 CTU report said such counselors are overworked, with each responsible for up to 1,200 elementary school students and 360 high school students.

“A counselor’s workday consists of coordinating test administration and paperwork, leaving her little time to actually counsel individual students or even small groups,” the CTU report said. “No additional counselors are provided schools in high poverty, high need areas.”

Experts who work with children exposed to violence say getting kids counseling is critical to breaking Chicago’s cycle of bloodshed.

“A lot of the guys that are out there involved in violence have experienced trauma themselves,” said Norman Livingston Kerr, vice president of violence prevention with social services agency UCAN.

Chicago has seen 421 homicides this year, an 18 percent spike over the same period in 2014, the Tribune reported. While gun violence in Chicago is down from record highs in the early 1990s, today’s figures have defied years of effort by anti-violence activists in the city. Community activists who try to keep Chicago's youth from crime blame the rise on unexpected state funding cuts this year for social programs and summer jobs meant to keep kids off the street.

Kerr says the psychological trauma can lead to a vicious cycle that causes young people to act out in violent ways. Seeing relatives, friends or neighbors killed or wounded can lead to intrusive thoughts or impulsive, risky behavior that hampers kids’ ability to learn and disrupts classrooms, Kerr said.

He said the best solution is to train all school staffers to help respond to the problem.

“We’ll never have enough official counselors,” Kerr said. “The approach has to be any staff person is trauma-informed. Most of our young people have experienced some sort of trauma, whether it be at home or in the community. Most kids in Chicago schools are dealing with something.”

Children too young to hold a gun are also victims of Chicago’s gun violence, Kerr says. People tend to think of the younger children as innocent, with a cloud of culpability hovering over older ones, but it’s important to remember that both are victims, he said.

“You do a lot of listening, and give them a chance to speak and be heard,” Kerr said. But he added that it can take months for a child to open up, especially given the stigma of seeking mental health care.

Bosley, the church counselor, has worked with traumatized youth for years, but said it was still hard for her to find the words to comfort the youngest survivors of violence.

“You can’t explain it,” Bosley said. “You can just hug them, and show them love, talk to them about their values and just love them. There’s nothing you can say other than encourage them. I tell kids it’s OK to cry, to be mad, to be sad. It’s OK to get it out. It’s OK to scream, because this shouldn’t happen.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that 17 children under the age of 10 were victims of homicides in Chicago since 2001. The correct number is 27. 

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