Before they crack a textbook or enter a school's doors, most public high school students in Chicago have already taken their first test of the day.
To make it to school, students crisscross streets carved up by gangs, board buses at chaotic stops and steer clear of particularly dangerous swaths of the neighborhood. They do so with a chilling indifference. Gangs, guns and drugs stir neighborhood violence so routine that many of the 116,000 high school students have grown numb to it.
The situation drew the nation's attention last month when a 16-year-old Fenger High School student was beaten to death on his way to a bus stop after school, and the attack was caught on video. But every day Chicago students face perilous treks away from the lens of a camera. And every year the death toll mounts as some don't complete the journey.
In the wake of Derrion Albert's death, the Tribune shadowed teens from six high schools across the city, chronicling their commutes to and from school on foot, in cars and, often, on public transportation, since Chicago Public Schools typically does not bus high school students. All six said they had witnessed violence on their daily journey, and three had, themselves, been attacked or robbed while commuting.
"These are the issues they have to deal with as they go back and forth to school on a daily basis," said Chicago Public Schools security chief Michael Shields. "These young people have been through more than we can imagine by the time they enter high school."
Consider Percy Harris, a 17-year-old senior at Crane Tech High School on the West Side. He betrayed no fear when he described his trip to and from school.
"God's got me," Harris said, his voice just above a whisper. "I ain't worried."
Moments later, he coolly recounted the random shootings and gang-fueled fights that have erupted around him on the walk to Crane. He said that with every step he expects the unexpected -- any lesser state of vigilance is a risk.
"Safe passage is one of the most pressing issues we face," said Peggy Korellis-Byrd, principal at TEAM Englewood High School. "It seems like an impossible thing for principals to have control over. We can only go so far outside of school. It's not like it isn't my problem, because it is," she said. "But it's also a community problem."
Tribune reporters Rex W. Huppke and Kristen Mack contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Gantlet in our headline is correct usage. A gantlet refers to moving while under attack from both sides, as in to run the gantlet. A gauntlet is a glove. To throw down the gauntlet means to issue a challenge.
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