Harper High School, Part One

February 17, 2013

This American Life spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone 29 current and recent students were shot. 

This week's show examines what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, and how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances.


At the first day assembly, the freshman seem confused and nervous while the seniors are boisterous and confident. It's exactly the kind of first day stuff you'd expect at any school. Until Harper Principal Leonetta Sanders calls for a moment of silence to honor the students Harper has lost in the last year. Then Harper doesn't seem so ordinary. In the clean and orderly halls of Harper, we meet the staff as they shepherd the students through new schedules and rules while they also try to reassure parents about the frightening rise in shootings in the neighborhood. (7 minutes)

ACT ONE - Rules to Live By:

So many of the shootings in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, the neighborhood where Harper High sits, are characterized as "gang-related." Often, the implication is that gang-related means there is a reason to the shooting — huge, established gangs shooting it out over drug territory. Gang-related often implies you must've deserved it, a certain level of 'what goes around comes around.' Reporter Linda Lutton talks to dozens of Harper students who say adults don't understand that that's not the way it works. Gangs don't operate the way they used to. (13 minutes)

ACT TWO - A Tiny Office on the Second Floor:

Reporter Alex Kotlowitz spends time in the social work office, where the effects of gun violence are most often apparent. Early on in the year, social worker Crystal Smith spends time with a junior named Devonte, talking him through his grief and guilt after Devonte accidentally shot and killed his 14 year old brother last year. Crystal also meets with Devonte's mother, who has some understandably confused feelings towards Devonte. (16 minutes)

ACT THREE - Game Day:

By early October, it's been pretty quiet at Harper, as far as gun violence goes. But on the day before the homecoming game, during a pep rally, a senior named Damoni who is both on the football team and nominated for Homecoming King, gets word that a good friend of his, James, has been shot. James is also a former Harper student with many ties to the school. Reporter Ben Calhoun follows Principal Sanders and the rest of the Harper staff as they jump into action and try to ward off more violence, keep the students safe and grapple with whether they need to cancel the Harper High School Homecoming. (18 minutes)

Story source: Public Radio International