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Education Secretary: Youth Violence National Issue


And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joins us now from his hometown, Chicago. Secretary Duncan, thanks so much for being with us.

NORRIS: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: The Derrion Albert case has the distinction of being caught on videotape. I'm wondering where you were when you first saw that videotape.

NORRIS: This has obviously been an unbelievably heartbreaking tragedy, and I heard about it at work and obviously, got lots of calls here from Chicago. You know, maybe it takes seeing something like this on video to galvanize the country. And as you well know, we've been dealing with horrendous loss of life and tragic deaths of young people in Chicago for a long, long time.

So, I wish this was a new issue for me, but it's not. It may be a new issue for the country because it was seen on video. And maybe you take this terrible tragedy to launch this national conversation of values and try and make something good, something positive out of something that's so tough.

NORRIS: It's clear that children are in crisis in Chicago, but they've been in crisis in that city for quite some time. Some in Chicago are a bit cynical about your decision to go to Chicago now. They wonder why this was not more of an issue, or more of a priority, for this administration before this beating was placed in - really, an international spotlight.

NORRIS: Well, this has been a priority for the president, for this administration from day one. During my seven and a half years as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, we dealt with horrendous numbers of violent deaths. And whether it was visiting those children's families, whether it was attending their funerals, unfortunately this is an issue that we've had lots of experience dealing with.

NORRIS: What are some of the things that Chicago and other cities specifically should be looking at doing right now?

NORRIS: Well, I think we have to listen to our students and what our students ask for - and it's amazing, you know, universally today, and again, these are just extraordinary students from Fenger High School - they're looking for mentors. They're looking for role models. They're looking for positive adults in their life. And you know, student after student said, you know, we're trying to do the right thing. We have some people pulling us in the wrong direction. So, we need mentors. We need more after-school programs. We need Saturday programs. Our students want to have productive lives, want to be part of the solution. We have to listen to them.

NORRIS: What happens to a school system, to the students, to the teachers, to the parent community when something like this happens? And not just that school, Fenger High School, but really, the entire school system is placed in such a negative light.

NORRIS: Well, again, it's not just a school system. The entire city and the entire country needs to grieve and use our grief and use our anger to move towards action. And so this is not a Chicago issue. This is a national issue. There are children in Tulsa, Oklahoma, being killed; there are children in Arizona; there are children in California. This is not an urban issue. It's not a rural issue, suburban issue. This is a national issue. What we want to do is begin this national conversation on young people and values. And I think Chicago can help to shape this national conversation and lead us as a nation where we need to go.

NORRIS: Secretary Duncan, you said you talked to students in Fenger and they were very positive. However, some people who live in Chicago, in the neighborhoods where these children came from, say part of the problem is a student assignment plan, implemented under your watch, that forces students to go to schools outside their neighborhoods. And because of loyalties and rivalries in these neighborhoods, parents, in some cases, say their children essentially have to head to hostile territory and that you didn't fully understand that when you implemented this plan.

NORRIS: That's just factually incorrect. As you may know, over half of the students in Chicago, on a voluntary basis, today go to schools outside their neighborhood. The majority of high school students travel outside their neighborhood. And there's almost at Fenger itself specifically, there's almost an identical number of students from the (unintelligible) community in Fenger today as there were five years ago.

So again, it's easy to point fingers, it's easy to lay blame, but it's just factually not true, and we need to really focus on those solutions that are going to help get us where we need to go.

NORRIS: Beyond laying blame, though, I'm wondering if the city leaders understood that in a city where there are these fiefdoms, that the city really understood what it would mean to have students moving all about the city in areas where they would be facing rivalries and hostilism.

NORRIS: Again, I'll just repeat what I just said, that more than half the students in Chicago today voluntarily travel to schools outside their neighborhood to go to high school. The majority of students, more than half do that on a voluntary basis. And students going to Fenger from the (unintelligible) community, their numbers are virtually identical to five years ago. So again, the facts just don't support that statement.

NORRIS: Secretary Duncan, thank you very much.

NORRIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He joined us from City Hall in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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