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A Mentor's Goal: Keeping At-Risk Chicago Teens Alive

Albert Stinson, 38, mentors 10 boys at Marshall High School, on Chicago's West Side. Most of them are affiliated with gangs and have criminal records — and are at serious risk for becoming victims of violence.
Dianna Douglas
Albert Stinson, 38, mentors 10 boys at Marshall High School, on Chicago's West Side. Most of them are affiliated with gangs and have criminal records — and are at serious risk for becoming victims of violence.

In Chicago last school year, 245 public school students were shot, 27 of them fatally.

It's a high toll. To try to find out who might be next, Chicago Public School officials developed a probability model by analyzing the traits of 500 shooting victims over a recent two-year period. They noted that the vast majority were poor, black and male, and had chronic absences, bad grades and serious misconduct.

Using this probability model, they identified more than 200 teenagers who have a shockingly good chance of being shot — a better than 1 in 5 chance within the next two years.


Project Director Jonathan Moy says the probability model isn't perfect, but it's working.

"Approximately half of the victims who have been shot this year were identified using the probability model," he says.

To reduce those awful odds, the school system is now assigning paid mentors to the teens identified to be most at risk of becoming victims of gun violence. Under the $20 million program, adult mentors counsel the teenagers in and out of school, help them find jobs and try to teach them life skills that can steer them away from violence. It's one of the most ambitious mentoring programs in the country.

Daily Fights

Albert Stinson, 38, walks through the lunchroom at his alma mater, Marshall High School on Chicago's West Side, greeting boys wearing Marshall uniforms — maroon polo shirts and khaki pants. "Hey! What's up boy? How you feeling, boy? Whatcha doing, yo?"


Stinson says he checks up on his mentees regularly.

"They was a part of that big gang fight last year, so I always gotta come see what's going on in the lunchroom," he says. "Sometime I wanna make sure my guys ain't into no type of squabble or things like that."

Gangs are a big problem here: Stinson says there are fights almost every day.

Most of the 10 boys Stinson mentors at Marshall are affiliated with gangs and have criminal records. They're not in that ultra high-risk category of having a 1 in 5 chance of being shot, but they are at serious risk for becoming victims of violence.

Stinson says he's looking for signs that his boys might be agitated or angry.

"If when I go up to them and ask them how they're doing, it's a certain look," he says. "Just from being in the neighborhood, you know it. If somebody's looking a certain way, you're kind of like, 'They in more of an aggressive mode.'"

Back in the classroom that serves as the mentors' office, the solidly built Stinson says the fact that he's from this neighborhood and graduated from Marshall 20 years ago gives him credibility with the teens.

"I have the same background. I was them. And that's one thing I use to my advantage because I know what it feels to be affiliated in the court system," he says. "But I also know what it feels like to grow and that's what I'm getting them to look at when they set visionary goals — that you can grow from the dirt that's out there."

Stinson says the teenagers he works with often can't see a future. As he puts it, they "only see what's across the street," and almost everything they see is negative.

The teens NPR talked to at Marshall say it's often hard to find positive things to do and positive people to be around — and that's especially true of the men in their lives.

As someone once on the wrong path himself, Stinson says he is very aware of the lack of good role models in these boys' lives.

"I think that we do a bad job and I apologize to all of my mentees," he says. "As black men, we have failed them, because of examples we put out there."

Raw And Explosive Anger

When NPR followed Stinson at Marshall earlier this school year, he was meeting with his boys almost every day at school. Now, he focuses on visiting with them after school and at home. He goes to court with them and checks in with their probation officers and teachers. He's also trying to help them find part-time jobs.

I wanna live to see everything. My kids grow up, they kids grow up. I wanna see all that, I wanna see them graduate and go to college. I wanna see them be more than who I am.

It's the kind of attention 17-year-old Antonio Fox, one of Stinson's newest mentees, is just warming up to.

"You need a person to talk to before you do something stupid," Fox says. "You need a mentor or somebody on your side who will say something: 'Man, don't do this, don't do that.' Sometimes, you ain't gonna listen but you gotta listen so you don't get in trouble."

Antonio has been in trouble quite a bit. He was kicked out of school for fighting, but has been back since October. He's on probation and lives with an aunt because his mother "did something stupid."

He says he's seen plenty of street violence: an uncle's head bashed in by a crowbar, a rival shot down who's now in a coma.

And he admits to provoking many fights himself.

But Antonio says he knows how fistfights can quickly escalate to gunbattles, and says he doesn't want to be a part of it anymore.

"I wanna live to see everything," he says. "My kids grow up, their kids grow up. I wanna see all that, I wanna see them graduate and go to college. I wanna see them be more than who I am."

But just an hour or so later, Antonio is out in the hallway, picking a fight.

"Where's my money, man!" he yells. "Where my money at, man!"

Stinson runs out to try to calm him down: "Tonio! Hey! Tonio! You don't have to be like that!"

Antonio's anger is raw and explosive — and Stinson has his hands full.

"You don't have to disrespect a brother like that, Tonio, because it's not that serious about $2, Tonio!"

No punches are thrown, but the shouting continues for more than 10 minutes, and Antonio is still furious.

I think that we do a bad job and I apologize to all of my mentees. As black men, we have failed them because of examples we put out there.

Stinson eventually calms him down and walks Antonio to class.

"You gonna be good, man?" Stinson asks. "Yeah, you smiling, man. Go into class, man!"

As he walks away, Stinson says this of Antonio: "He be all right. I trust him."

Later, though, Stinson notes how dangerous Antonio's explosive rage could have been — and that if this fight had been on the street, it could have been deadly. Stinson says the boys he's mentoring only know how to react in the worst way.

"It's basically like we've got to recondition them because they were never shown certain life skills," Stinson says. "And that's the unfortunate part because when they're not shown certain life skills, they just react. It's no critical thinking in that because they've never been shown how to sit down and try to think things through because everything is so reactionary. So you have to put in so much work and it's a process."

Signs Of Success

With some of the guys he's mentoring though, Stinson says he is seeing signs of progress. He sees them taking more accountability for their actions, and he says some are more aware of and trying to avoid what Stinson calls the traps facing young black males.

"Brother D, this young fella got something to tell you," Stinson says.

And at the end of the day, Antonio is back to mumble an apology. "Hey, I got outta line with you, man," he says.

At Marshall and at other Chicago Public High Schools where mentors are working with almost 1,700 teenagers most at risk for becoming victims of gun violence, there are other signs of success. The mentored teens are attending school more often and getting into a lot less trouble. School officials say attendance for students with mentors is up almost 10 percent and serious behavioral incidents are down 34 percent.

And officials say outside of school, significantly fewer students have been shot than at this point last year.

It's not all good news though. One of the 10 boys Stinson started mentoring at Marshall back in the fall is now behind bars.

Citywide, nearly half of the kids school officials identified as being at ultra high risk for becoming victims of gun violence didn't even get into the mentoring program. Some dropped out, moved and couldn't be found; some are incarcerated; some refused to participate or their parents refused to give consent; and, yes, for a few it was too late — they'd already been shot.

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