CHICAGO — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Wednesday pledged federal support to fight a surge in youth violence in Chicago and other cities, calling the brutal beating death of a teenager on the city's South Side a wake-up call for the country.
But neither offered specifics or outlined any new strategies on how the government would help quell the increase in the number of violent deaths among teens.
Duncan and Holder were sent to Chicago by President Barack Obama to meet with officials, parents and students from Christian Fenger Academy High School after the vicious beating of a 16-year-old sophomore whose Sept. 24 after-school death was captured on a cell phone video.
Holder said the disturbing images of Derrion Albert's beating death have been a wake-up call for the country and a call to action for the Obama administration.
"Youth violence is not a Chicago problem, any more than it is a black problem, a white problem or a Hispanic problem," Holder said. "It is an American problem."
A study on youth violence funded by the Department of Justice and released Wednesday found that 60 percent of respondents had been exposed to violence in the past year, and nearly half had been assaulted at least once, Holder said. Exposure to violence included a range from minor to serious incidents. The findings also appeared Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Obama's administration has asked for $25 million in next year's budget for community-based crime prevention programs, Holder said. Duncan said an emergency grant of about $500,000 would go to Fenger for counselors or other programs.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said the high-profile involvement of Obama's administration isn't "show and tell" but a genuine commitment to address youth violence.
Duncan wouldn't say when or where the meeting with Fenger's principal, students and parents took place Wednesday, but he and Holder had breakfast with Daley and community and faith-based leaders at the Four Seasons Hotel off the ritzy Magnificent Mile downtown.
When asked why the meeting wasn't held near Fenger, on the city's far South Side, Duncan said he didn't want to disrupt the school with a media "circus."
A message left for Fenger's principal wasn't immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.
Some Fenger students who didn't attend the meeting said they appreciated the visit from Duncan and Holder because it showed that the outside world cares about them. But they said the power to stop the violence ultimately lies with them.
"It's up to us to make a change," said junior Shanequa Burgess, 17. "All of these adults are doing what they need to do to help us."
Some activists, parents and students say the violence at Fenger, as well as schools citywide, is the unintended byproduct of an ambitious plan to improve education in Chicago called Renaissance 2010.
Since 2005, dozens of Chicago schools have been closed and thousands of students reassigned to campuses outside their neighborhoods – and often across gang lines – as part of Renaissance 2010. While the plan has resulted in replacing failing and low-enrollment schools with charter schools and smaller campuses, it has also led to a spike in violence that has increasingly turned deadly, critics say.
Duncan, who as the former head of CPS helped implement Renaissance 2010, said it was ridiculous to blame the plan for the violence that claimed Albert's life.
"Chicago won't be defined by this incident but rather by our response to it," Duncan said. "We should use this moment to go forward together. This is a fork in the road, this is a line in the sand, and we need to get dramatically better."
Before the 2006 school year, an average of 10-15 public school students were fatally shot each year. That soared to 24 deadly shootings in the 2006-07 school year, 23 deaths and 211 shootings in the 2007-08 school year and 34 deaths and 290 shootings last school year.
Few deaths have occurred on school grounds, but activists say it's no coincidence that violence spiked after the school closures.
Albert, an honor roll student at Fenger, was attacked when he got caught up in a mob of teens about six block from school on the city's South Side. Video shows him curled up on the sidewalk, as fellow teens kick him and hit him with splintered railroad ties. So far, four teens have been charged in his death.
Associated Press Writer Deanna Bellandi and Videojournalist Mark Carlson contributed to this report.