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Chicago Police program protects kids targeted with gang violence

The 13-year-old seen this YouTube video whose identity has been obscured by Chicago Sun-Times was transferred south suburban school district

The 13-year-old seen in this YouTube video, whose identity has been obscured by the Chicago Sun-Times, was transferred to a south suburban school district after the video was posted and the teen began to receive death threats.

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Updated: April 6, 2013 10:11PM

It’s like an early warning system for an oncoming storm of violence heading straight for a Chicago Public School student.

And the forecaster is the Chicago Police Department.

Sometimes, the students have witnessed gang murders.

Other times, a gang-banger has killed a student’s family member, and the student fears he’s next.

In other instances, kids beings kids, they goof up — one kid mimicked a gang rap video, which was posted on YouTube, and 60,000 views later, the wannabe video star found himself the focus of deadly attention.

No matter the story, the students share a common trait.

Their lives are in serious danger.

Sounding the alarm to help save those students’ lives is a little-noticed unit of the Chicago Police Department — the Gang School Safety Team.

Over the past three years, at the team’s recommendation, about 60 students have been transferred to other schools for their protection.

Most are sent to another public school in Chicago.

Some head to the suburbs.

Others need to move out of state.

The stakes are high: Last year, 428 Chicago Public Schools students were shot, 40 of whom were killed, police said.

The Gang School Safety Team was formed in 2010 to respond to shootings of CPS students. The team works with Chicago Public Schools to convince families they need to move their children — and fast — out of harm’s way.

When a student is shot, officers on the team visit a victim’s school within 24 hours of the shooting and speak to the victim’s friends and associates to encourage them not to retaliate. When the officers learn of serious threats against students, they can recommend a transfer.

Students have been relocated to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Colorado, authorities said. One student was sent to Milwaukee because his brother was shot to death and he feared he was next, officials said.

Chicago Public Schools doesn’t pay for moving expenses, but in some cases “might work with other partners and agencies to identify resources to support the family,” a CPS spokeswoman said.

Most of the transferred students are high-schoolers who receive threats because they are involved in gangs.

But one student, a high school senior, just happened to witness a murder on the South Side in 2011.

She feared for her life, especially after she saw some postings about her on the Internet.

“The people that did it, they saw me,” she said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I was frightened.”

The Gang School Safety Team warned her mom, who agreed to transfer her to another South Side high school.

The girl is now studying biology at a college out of state and hopes to become a physical therapist.

She cooperated with detectives in the murder investigation, and the triggerman was convicted.

“It’s terrible that this happened, but if it wasn’t for this program, she probably would have blown her senior year,” her mother said. “We were actually going to exercise the option of her being home-schooled before I learned about the program.” Both agreed to speak with the Sun-Times on the condition they not be identified.

The 19-year-old student said the reason she wanted to transfer from her school wasn’t because she was afraid of other students. Instead, she didn’t want to come into contact with the gunman, who wasn’t a student but lived in the neighborhood near the school.

“I felt like it was necessary and I appreciated it,” she said of the transfer. “I did feel safe.”

2,200 interventions

The Gang School Safety Team is trained to talk with traumatized kids. The officers conduct interventions with individual students after a shooting. They always have a school official in the room, someone the student trusts.

If a principal wishes, the officers will also speak to the entire group of friends and associates of the victim — and even their rivals.

Since 2010, the Gang School Safety Team has conducted more than 2,200 interventions, with more than 600 of them in the current school year, police said.

“Our goal with the Gang School Safety Team is not to make an arrest, but to prevent gang-related violence from occurring in and around the school,” said Nicholas Roti, chief of the police department’s Organized Crime Bureau.

“Part of it is telling the kids, ‘We know who you are and what the gang structure is and if there is retaliation, it will be by one of your guys,’ ” Roti said. “We say, ‘Give us time and we will get the guy behind the shooting — and you won’t ruin your own life.’”

Stopping a 13-year-old’s murder

The team’s mission has expanded as teenagers have swarmed to the Internet to threaten gang rivals. Social media has become the modern graffiti wall for young gang members.

Officers on the team locate students whose lives have been threatened on social media such as Facebook and YouTube, and try to protect them.

One example is a 13-year-old elementary school student who made a rap video last month with his friends.

Posing outside a school, they mimicked gang videos posted by older rappers, but didn’t appreciate the deadly consequences, police said.

The young students mocked Joseph “Lil’ JoJo” Coleman, an 18-year-old rapper murdered last year in Englewood.

In the video, posted on YouTube, the 13-year-old boy waved a small silver gun and threatened to shoot an older teenager in the face.

He also shouted “GDK,” a threat to kill members of JoJo’s gang — the Gangster Disciples.

Officers on the Gang School Safety Team were tipped that Gangster Disciples were out to kill some of the students in the video, including the 13-year-old rapper.

There were numerous threats in the comments section of the video, which has been viewed more than 60,000 times to date, police said.

The threats included: “you gone end up like JoJo;” “that n---- dead;” and “ya’ll need more than that lil ass gun to be dissin’ the GD’s.”

On March 18 — two days after the video was posted — officers on the Gang School Safety Team identified the 13-year-old boy. They notified Chicago Public Schools and the boy’s grandmother of the threats.

That day, the boy didn’t go to school, and his grandmother agreed to transfer him to a south suburban school, police said.

The same day, members of the GDs stood outside the boy’s Englewood school looking for him. Police suspect the older gangsters were planning to kill him. Two younger boys in the video were later transferred to different schools, too, police said.

‘Other cities could learn from what Chicago is doing’

Sometimes, the team takes action to protect a student who threatens to harm himself.

In December, the team identified a high school student who posted an online threat to commit suicide, police said.

The student had planned to go to school, create a disturbance that would require officers to respond and force them to shoot him so he could “die by cop,” police said. The Gang School Safety Team notified the boy’s parents and he was hospitalized.

Last week, the team came to the aid of an entire family who was in danger.

The officers worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to move a family to different CHA housing after a student got into a fight that sparked threats against the family.

Two Chicago Public Schools students in the family were moved to a different school, police said.

Although their primary mission is to prevent retaliatory shootings and protect students from violence, Gang School Safety Team officers sometimes get tips about murders and shootings from the students they meet in their interventions.

The officers pass them along to detectives, and some of the tips have been key to solving the shootings, police said.

“We don’t see the ‘no-snitch code’ very much in our interventions because they trust us,” said one member of the team, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The team also is involved in the safety planning surrounding the announced closing of about 50 elementary schools in Chicago in the fall.

The Gang School Safety Team — founded by Cmdr. Leo Schmitz and Sgt. Kenneth Boudreau — started on the South Side as a pilot program, but now operates citywide. It has two sergeants, including Boudreau, and 15 officers.

The officers who work on the South Side have their headquarters in a police station in Englewood. They have a spartan office whose walls are decorated with rows of colorful T-shirts made in honor of slain teenagers such as Lil’ JoJo.

Their work over the past three years is impressive, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law-enforcement think tank in Washington, D.C.

Wexler was a key player in the discussions that led to the creation of the team.

“There is no other city in the country that does this like Chicago does,” he said. “Other cities could learn from what Chicago is doing.”

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