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After several shootings rocked Evanston over the summer, members of the Evanston Township High School board called on each other, local government agencies, community organizations and individuals to work together to curb the violence at the board’s first meeting of the new school year Monday night.
In July, a 13-year-old student in District 65 was severely injured after being shot in the neck at a backyard party on Fowler Avenue, and the Evanston Police Department charged a 17-year-old juvenile from Sauk Village in southeastern Cook County with attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery for the shooting. In August, 5-year-old Devin McGregor, a new kindergarten student at Willard Elementary School, was killed in a shooting in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Between a proximity to such violence and the ongoing effects of the pandemic, young people in Evanston are continuing to experience trauma on a daily basis, several board members said. That trauma is fueling mental health crises, behavioral issues and fear among ETHS students, they said.
“It’s not an easy solution because with every incident, there’s family trauma. With every incident, there’s all these underlying backstories, the circumstances. We need our whole community to buy into this effort,” board President Pat Savage-Williams said. “We need every agency, every church, every synagogue, every individual to not only talk about this, but if we don’t recognize this as problematic, then we’ll never solve it.”
Also at the meeting, ETHS Associate Principal for Educational Services Keith Robinson provided an update on new security measures that ETHS is rolling out.
Earlier this year, after a group of parents circulated a petition calling for a study on whether ETHS should install a weapons detection system, the board hired consulting firm Facility Engineering Associates to conduct a security assessment. School administrators said in May that the report ultimately found metal detectors were not a viable option for the school.
At Monday’s meeting, Robinson said he and the school security team identified a number of basic measures to improve ETHS emergency responses and violence prevention strategies. One example: New signs with more explicit messages on safety expectations and what students can and cannot bring into the building.
The spate of recent shootings will affect the health and wellbeing of students for a long time, and they cannot learn well if they do not feel safe in school, Savage-Williams said.
“It pains me to say, regardless of what color your skin is, how much money you make, where you live, that our children are not well,” Board Vice President Monique Parsons said. “And I’ll say that it is not their fault. So we’re responsible for leading the next generation, and we’ve forgotten an entire generation because [of the myth that violence] doesn’t happen in our backyard, and now, we are making decisions based on what we failed to do.”
Examining health inequities
During Monday’s board meeting, members also heard a presentation from Evanston Community Health Specialist Kristin Meyer on disparities in health outcomes by census tract in the city. Meyer and her team in the local department of health and human services compiled the data as part of the Evanston Project for the Local Assessment of Needs (EPLAN), a strategic process updated every five years to help identify the city’s public health, safety and equity priorities.
Parsons and ETHS Superintendent Marcus Campbell previously learned about the latest EPLAN data from Meyer at an Evanston Cradle to Career event, which prompted Campbell to invite her to speak at a board meeting, he said.
“I had to get this data in front of the board because it’s overwhelmingly compelling, and it’s very emotional,” Campbell said before the presentation. “As I sat and heard the information, I could feel my heart racing, and as this board considers the process for your goals and begin to think about your goals … this particular presentation is really important.”
The data and graphs that Meyer provided ultimately revealed how census tract 8092, which lies in Evanston’s predominately Black Fifth Ward, has the lowest life expectancy of any census tract in the city and the most acute economic, mental health and environmental issues. In fact, the city’s life expectancy map essentially mirrors an Evanston redlining map from 1935 that labeled the Fifth Ward as a “hazardous” housing area.
Also, Evanston’s median household income is nearly $79,000 per year, but census tract 8092 has a median household income of $44,000, Meyer said. The lack of sufficient resources and access to health care in the neighborhood has also led to higher child poverty rates and worse outcomes from youth growing up in the area as well.
And across all of Evanston, reading proficiency varies widely by race. About 50% of third graders in local schools read at their grade level, and the demographic groups that fall below that percentage are Black, Hispanic, low-income and homeless residents.
“Quality of life varies very widely by neighborhood. We see consistently, throughout the data, disproportionate harm to both census tract 8092 and to the Black community in general,” Meyer said. “Unfortunately, that was not just kept in the past, but is something where we’re continuing to see disinvestment and segregation that really require urgent action and change to stop and to go in a different direction.”
Even the tree coverage is significantly worse in tract 8092 and the Fifth Ward as a whole, Meyer said, and that neighborhood has disproportionately borne the brunt of climate change.
Based on community input and surveys gathered as part of the project, local youth expressed a desire for better workforce development opportunities, easier access to mental health care, accessible mentors who better reflect the Evanston population and safe spaces to gather as a community, according to Meyer. Savage-Williams and other representatives on the board also emphasized that they will keep the EPLAN data close to home when making decisions on everything from ETHS strategic priorities to the budget.
“It’s devastating,” Savage-Williams said. “I guess what I want to say is: It’s in writing. It’s what I’ve felt, what I’ve known. It’s my experience, my life, and here it is.”