As a firefighter and a police officer, Annette Nance-Holt and her ex-husband, Ronald Holt, knew the dangers of the city and took every precaution they could to protect their son, Blair. "He wasn't the kind of teenager that didn't listen," says Nance-Holt. "He was an outstanding young person."
When another teen opened fire on a public bus after school on May 10, 2007, Blair, 16, showed himself to be a hero, throwing his body over a girl and taking the gunshot that would kill him.
Blair became one of 32 Chicago Public School student killed that school year, and also emerged as a symbol for the victims of youth violence.
"All the time we tell our children to go to school and do the right thing, and he was doing the right thing, along with the other people who were on the bus," Nance-Holt says, noting that four fellow Julian High School students were shot and injured in the incident.
Homicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds throughout the country and the primary cause of death among African Americans of that age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2006 emergency rooms treated more than 720,000 violence-related injuries in youth ages 10 to 24.
The U.S. Surgeon General declared youth violence a national epidemic in a 2001 report: "No community, whether affluent or poor, urban, suburban, or rural, is immune from its devastating effects.... This epidemic has left lasting scars on victims, perpetrators, and their families and friends. It also has wounded entire communities and, in ways not yet fully understood, the United States as a whole."
With 36 Chicago Public Schools students killed during the 2008-2009 school year, Chicago is at the epicenter of this epidemic. Still, the stories and photos from Chicago illustrate the crippling toll violence can take on children anywhere.
As a first-responder to emergency calls, Nance-Holt says that violence is a much larger problem than most people ever see, with most non-fatal shootings never making the news.
When the surgeon general declared youth violence a national epidemic, homicide rates had actually fallen from a 1993 high. Rates have risen slightly since 2001, but as is the nature of epidemics, there are frequent outbreaks. "Much work is still needed to help develop a society where all youth live fulfilling lives, safe from hurt and harm," says CDC's Jeff Hall, a behavioral scientist with the Division of Violence Prevention.
Violence may be focused in certain neighborhoods, but it's everyone's problem, says Father Bruce Wellems, the Claretian pastor of Holy Cross/ Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. "We're all the Body of Christ, so if you have cancer in your left hand, why should you care? The thing is, it's going to spread."
With the gang lifestyle glamorized in pop culture, "wannabes" emulating gang activity are a problem in suburban Chicago, reports Tom Sedor, principal of Infant Jesus of Prague School in Flossmoor, southwest of Chicago. "You can't put your head in the sand and say that will never happen here," Sedor says.
Homicide in one community is a threat to the entire nation, Hall says, because "it actually compromises our society's ability to reproduce itself. It removes from our present individuals who could possibly have large contributions to our future."
Father Michael Pfleger, an outspoken advocate for victims of violence and the Holts' pastor at St. Sabina Parish in Chicago, echoes Hall's analysis, categorizing youth violence as a life issue. Abortion, he says, is "whatever keeps life from its God-given potential. We're aborting in the womb, yes. We're also aborting in the streets."
"It has a whole ripple effect on young people," Pfleger adds. …