A South Side high school was processing the shooting death of a student, with kids releasing balloons into the sky at a vigil, when another classmate was killed miles away.
Students at a Southwest Side school spent nearly a year at home during the pandemic before the community could come back together to mourn the killing of a 7-year-old girl who hadn’t yet started 2nd grade.
Those tragedies were met with initial shock and grief, and drew television cameras and news headlines. But the trauma lingered in the days, weeks and months that followed, altering habits, moods and relationships and leaving schools across the city reeling.
For decades, Chicago Public Schools students, the vast majority Black or brown and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have dealt with trauma stemming from racism, disinvestment in their neighborhoods and violence.
But over the past two years, the unprecedented upheaval of the pandemic has deepened the suffering — and contributed to a surge in violence — while making that trauma all the harder to address for staff at the schools tasked with helping communities heal. And those same staff members face limited resources while grieving themselves.
“It’s hard having to hold back tears for kids,” said Tracey Stelly, principal at Lavizzo Elementary, where a student was killed last month, “and also letting students know that it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to grieve.”
Chicago has lost 57 school-aged children to gun violence this year, 16 of them in elementary or middle school, according to records maintained by the Sun-Times. In 2020, 49 kids were killed, 12 of them before they reached high school. Dozens more 18-year-olds, who were either current or recent students, were fatally shot, their deaths also reverberating in their school communities.
Then there are the kids who are injured in shootings but survive, like the Phillips Academy High School student who, along with a security guard, was struck by gunfire as she walked out of the building this fall.
“Imagine all those kids at Phillips right now, how traumatized they are by one of their freshmen being shot at the school, their security guard being shot,” the Rev. Michael Pfleger said in October. “And this is throughout the South and the West sides. The trauma that’s suffered by families, by whole communities, by whole neighborhoods.”
Crown Community Academy: 10-month wait to come together after 7-year-old slain
A selection of teachers and staff joined parents and about a dozen students in the open space behind Crown Community Academy in North Lawndale. Purple balloons fluttered through the light wind — it was Natalia Wallace’s favorite color, the balloons a similar shade to her casket, and to the cross marking where she was killed.
Zarree Walker, the principal, started by pointing out this was the school’s first in-person event in over a year. “It was only appropriate that the first thing we do is to celebrate the life of Natalia Wallace,” she said over a loudspeaker.
“I wish we never lost you,” said Michael, one of Natalia’s classmates. “I wish Natalia was still by my side.”
Another student, London, wrote on a poster that Natalia made “the sky so blue, and when I was sad, you made me happy.”
The emotional celebration of her life, with Natalia’s father, siblings and cousins seated in the front row, was due much sooner if not for the pandemic. Instead, teachers held conversations with their classes over video — trying to bring peace to both the kids and themselves. Anyone needing extra support had a counselor available.
Still, LaShaye Kimbrough, a school clerk at Crown, said students couldn’t mourn their classmate — and educators their student — like they wanted.
“That was my baby,” Kimbrough said. “Right after it happened, it was summertime, and coming back it was a pandemic. We like to touch, we like to hug. Not being able to do that, that was hurtful.”
Venezah St. Louis, a therapist at the nonprofit Children’s Research Triangle, said discussing the event that caused the trauma is important, as is avoiding the misconception that bringing the pain out in the open will make kids feel worse.
“Oftentimes, addressing it, like, ‘When you saw this happen in your neighborhood and it was really scary and now, you know, you have nightmares and you’re scared to go to the neighborhood store, that makes so much sense, and now we’re here and we’re going to talk about that and we’re going to play it out and we’re going to help you to feel safer,’” St. Louis said.
Walker said the death of a student is a principal’s “worst nightmare.”
“A lot of our work is built on empowering students and aligning their trajectories. To know that we didn’t have a chance to set that path for Natalia is heartbreaking,” she said. “We’ve had a couple staff members that are still coming to terms with it.”
Natalia’s dad, Nathan Wallace Jr., said the ceremony was both heartwarming and painful.
“I was really happy that my daughter was able to touch so many hearts that the school actually decided to do something like this,” he said.
Staff has checked in on Nathan and the family since Natalia’s death. Her brother and sister still attended Crown, and have spoken to a therapist there and one outside of school.
Lavizzo Elementary: Shooting devastates principal in Roseland. ‘We are part of the kids’ families, too,’ she saysThe hallways are noticeably muted. Students stick to their homerooms rather than moving to various classes. Some kids talk to a social worker. Others spend time in a safe room set up to help process trauma. Educators gather and cry.
School is a somber place the days and weeks after the loss of a student.
“You’ll see the hurt, the quiet,” said Stelly, the Lavizzo principal. “You’re going to see tears. The anger. And you definitely feel grief, a lot. Just sadness.”
Lavizzo is the Roseland neighborhood school on the Far South Side where 14-year-old Kevin Tinker attended before he was fatally shot last month. A couple days later, his mother was killed at the same spot as she laid down flowers to honor her son.
The killings shocked the community and the school. Stelly held a town hall to let parents and neighbors air their grief. And teachers have felt the pain, too.
“I don’t know if people understand,” Stelly said. “We know that it hurts their families deeply. But we’re a part of the kids’ families, too. I have kids for 11, sometimes 12 years. ... And that’s a huge impact on an educator.”
Stelly lost three close relatives this fall before Kevin and his mother were killed. She’s reached out to family and her supervisors for support, plus a therapist.
“It’s been really hard,” she said.
The school’s social worker, counselor and psychologist have put together a trauma plan for students and staff. A box has been set up for kids to drop off poems, drawings, letters or anything else to help them through Kevin’s death.
Last week, leading up to winter break, at least one fun activity was planned every day. The district has also sent a crisis team for support, and community organizations have chipped in for help.
“And I’ve always had what we call safe rooms in our building, where students have an adult present and can write down reflections, or just sit still during a time that they’re experiencing a crisis or any sort of trauma,” Stelly said.
Having those systems set up before a crisis hits, rather than scrambling in the moment, is invaluable.
“Right now during this pandemic, everybody is experiencing trauma. Trauma definitely can affect kids’ academics.
“But we should definitely make sure that the part of education is not altered because of trauma. We have to make sure we are providing some holistic and wraparound services for our kids, for our adults.”
St. Louis, the community therapist, said trauma can have long-term effects on kids, who may lose sleep and interest in things they once relished.
Schools across the country have reported increased instances of so-called “acting out” by students this fall, whether it be insults directed at teachers or fights.
Simeon Career Academy: Students avoid plaza were classmate was killed, take solace in peace circle roomNicayla Wright still can’t walk along the patch of concrete outside the Chase Bank branch where Jamari Williams, a 15-year-old fellow freshman at Simeon Career Academy, was shot and killed. If she has to head that way to a nearby Potbelly’s for lunch, she avoids looking in that direction.
“I feel some type of way about just walking right there,” Nicayla said. “I know what happened there, I just try to not to think of it too much.”
Jamari’s death came mere minutes after classes let out late last month, around the corner from the school. Jamari, a junior varsity football player, had been dealing with his own trauma stemming from the loss of his father to gun violence in the past year.
The night of his death, friends held a vigil at the shooting scene, releasing star-shaped balloons into the air. Around the same time, another Simeon student, 15-year-old Kentrell McNeal, was shot six miles away in Hyde Park and would die the next day.
The school felt “different” after the shootings, said Hamadi London, anotherfreshman. “People grieving, stuff like that that. People still learning how to deal with the situation.”
The commercial plaza where Jamari was killed used to be a popular after-school hangout. Now it’s a less-frequented area that has harsh memories. More students are staying inside the school until their rides pull up or arequick to jump on one of the CTA buses waiting outside.
“Definitely be aware of your surroundings,” London said. “Because you knowanything can happen.”
The school gave students space to come together and share their feelings with each other, staff and a counselor — who’s getting more visitors than usual. And Simeon, like Lavizzo, also has a “peace circle room” where students having a bad day can take some time to decompress.
“They’ll letus go in there, calm down, collect ourselves, and then they’ll let us go on about ourday,” Wright said.
On the counselor sessions: “The kids really needed it,” London said. “Even before the situation happened.”
John Hay Community Academy: After student killed Father’s Day Weekend 2020, ‘We’re still dealing with her death. It’s part of a day-to-day process’School had let out for the year four days earlier. It was mid-June 2020, and a year unlike any other had just finished, the last three months spent at home in a scrapped-together virtual learning program. Kids and staff at John Hay Community Academy were relieved to reach summer break.
Then they got an email, or in some cases a phone call, with tragic news: Amaria Jones, 13 at the time, had been killed. She was dancing in the living room of her family’s Austin home on Father’s Day weekend, showing her mom a new move she learned on TikTok, when a bullet flew through the window.
“Especially for the kids to receive an email and get phone calls, it’s hard to gauge kids’ understanding of what happened and grapple with coping,” said Principal Latrese Mathis this month, looking over at a photo of Amaria displayed in her office. “It’s a different form of community when you’re actually able to embrace each other and hug each other, and just see emotions on each others’ faces. As much as the Google Meet provides some connectivity, there is still a missing human piece.”
Amaria was killed 15 days before Natalia, the Crown Community Academy student. Amaria’s favorite color, like Natalia, was purple. It was the color of Amaria’s casket and of the shirts her family wore to her funeral, held the day before Natalia’s death.
The funeral was a solemn affair, hundreds packing a West Side church with more than 100 more standing outside because of COVID-19 capacity restrictions.
Inside, a group of educators from Amaria’s school, seated in two rows of pews at the front right of the church, got a round of applause. Sabrina Jones, a former teacher at the school, said the teenager “was a very special young lady to us.”
“She had a lot of surrogate moms, and at John Hay I was one of them,” Jones said. “And she just had this beautiful smile. I mean that smile was so contagious. She lit up the whole room, even when she got in trouble. She was just a joy to be around, I just hate that we’re here.”
The following fall, students wore purple for Amaria’s September birthday and made a tribute slideshow for her family. With students still in remote learning, the school’s two counselors and social worker were available for virtual therapy sessions.
Now that in-person classes have resumed, the school is giving students space to come up with a creative way to honor Amaria next June, when she would have graduated from 8th grade.
“We’re still dealing with her death. It’s part of a day-to-day process,” Mathis said. “I tell the kids all the time, it’s OK to miss her. We want you to miss her. ... Whatever the emotion is, let’s talk about it.