Straight From the Source: Chicago violence follows student to Elgin

Editor's note: Violence in Chicago can have an impact on the suburbs. Here, social worker Mary Abbott gives a firsthand example of a student affected by it.

Janet, 14, her three younger siblings and their mother moved to Elgin last spring to escape the violence in their Chicago neighborhood.

It was Janet's seventh move since starting school. What prompted this one was the shooting, witnessed by Janet, of her 17-year-old cousin in front of their house.

When Janet first arrived at school, she was guarded, quiet, sad and somewhat disconnected. As the school social worker, I was concerned about her and started the long process of trying to connect with her and build a relationship. Janet was resistant and fearful; she wanted to stay invisible.

Janet started to show how she was feeling through her behaviors. She struggled to stay in class (frequent visits to the nurse with somatic complaints) and difficulty focusing in class. She complained of being tired, distracted and disinterested.

She did open up eventually and told her story. A very sad one. She is worried about survival, whether she would get shot one day, how long she would live, the safety of her family, whether her mom could afford to provide dinner and how she was going to afford clothes and shoes in order to fit in with her peers.

Just as she started to open up, Janet said another relative in Chicago had been shot and killed. I couldn't believe it. Then, within a week, another family member was shot and killed. I couldn't help but wonder if she was telling the truth. It seemed so unbelievable. So I visited her mother to confirm Janet's story and to discuss getting Janet some additional support outside of school. The mother confirmed Janet's story, and said she, too, was worried about Janet but just didn't know how to help her.

We discussed some outside resources that could benefit Janet. Mom said she would follow up. Janet is a “trauma” kid focused on survival, not so much on her education. Many students like Janet come to school with unimaginable, mind-blowing stories and lives. When I listen to them I can see how important it is to first meet their emotional needs and build resiliency skills. They need to believe they can and will overcome what they are facing.

This is hard work, but the best work in the world. This is what school social workers do. We support students so they can go into the classroom and be available to learn.

Engaging in learning and completing homework may be at the bottom of their priority list when they walk into a school building with the weight of world on their shoulders: worried about what is going on at home and their personal safety, coupled with being accepted by their peers and a magnitude of other social pressures.

Our job is to assist them is dealing with all these larger-than-life concerns while at the same time helping them to engage in the learning process so they can get an education.

We know we have to help them process and work through what is getting in the way of learning in order for them to be successful learners.

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