This was Chicago's deadliest year in decades. A former high school principal has a plan to make things better

With two weeks left in 2016, more than 680 people have been shot and killed in Chicago, making it the city's deadliest year in decades. Liz Dozier is a former high school principal from Chicago's south side and works to keep youth out of gangs and off the streets. She reflects on the violent year that was, and looks ahead at ways to improve life in Chicago.
A Chicago man looks over a memorial for his friend who was shot and killed this summer. This has been the city's deadliest year in two decades. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There are only two weeks left in the year, and for the city of Chicago, 2016 will be remembered for some distressing statistics.

According to the Chicago Tribune, 745 people were the victims of homicide in the city this year as of Friday Dec. 16. 

Another crime tracking website states that 683 of those homicides were the result of gun violence. So far this year, there have been a total of 4,192 shootings in the windy city.

The last time Chicago's homicide rate was that high was in 1998, and it's increased by more than 50 per cent since last year.

It's a culmination of things: guns, education, jobs, mental health. It's multi-faceted.- Liz Dozier, Chicago Beyond

Liz Dozier is a former high school principal on Chicago's South Side, which, together with the West Side, is one of the two areas of the city with the highest rates of violent crime.

Dozier is now the Managing Director of Chicago Beyond, a nonprofit that works to educate and promote youth safety. As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, 745 homicides is a hard number to accept.

"I just think of the families," says Dozier. "When someone is killed by violence, or is shot, it doesn't affect [just] that individual, but all those families who are touched by the violence."


Unhealthy communities

The many reasons behind the rise in violence are complex. The police would like tougher sentences for repeat offenders of gun crime. Gangs in the city have also splintered and their numbers are a major problem in fighting violent crime. There are also suggestions that social media helps to fuel the tension between rival gangs.

For Dozier, the problem has been decades in the making.

"When you think about not having great educational systems, and disinvestment in communities, when you think about people really struggling to find jobs, I mean, it's no wonder that we're in this situation that we're in," says Dozier.

Police investigate the shooting death of a 14-year-old boy whose body is covered by a sheet on the sidewalk in September. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

At Dozier's former school, Fenger High, there was a 20% dropout rate. And in the Roseland community where the school is based, the unemployment rate among black men is 50%.

"It's a culmination of things: guns, education, jobs, mental health. It's multi-faceted."

Chicago has a high gun crime rate despite the fact that guns are banned in the city. That has gun rights advocates using Chicago as an example of how gun control does not work.

"You can drop 100 guns into a healthy community in the middle of the street and nothing happens, people aren't being shot and killed." - Liz Dozier, Chicago Beyond

Dozier points out Indiana is only a 20-minute drive from Chicago, and that guns are much more easily accessed in that state and then brought back to the city. But she stresses that the gun crime is as much about the gun laws as about what she calls healthy communities.

"You can drop 100 guns into a healthy community in the middle of the street and nothing happens, people aren't being shot and killed," she explains.

"And you drop 100 guns into an unhealthy community and you get what we're having here in Chicago."

Dozier says the way out of the current situation is to create healthy communities.

"Often times, people don't want to talk about [healthy communities] because it's a long-term commitment."


"I go to all the funerals"

Dozier witnessed gun violence firsthand as a principal.

 "I couldn't help but think, as I saw his casket lowered in the ground, what potential the world lost when they lost Lee."- Liz Dozier, Chicago Beyond

"I was shocked. I became the principal at Fenger High School and in our first year there were over 300 young people that were arrested in my school," says Dozier.

Those crimes were not petty; they were serious, violent crimes.

Dozier says her school felt more like a county jail when she first started, but over time, and with a lot of work, the crime rate reduced and it began to feel like a school atmosphere again.

She noticed a trend among the kids involved in crime. "This was a result of trauma. This was the result of kids feeling marginalized, feeling disconnected from themselves and disconnected from us as a community."

So Dozier spent her six years at Fenger High School trying to build a health community and trying to get to the root of what was causing the arrests among her students.

Lee McCollum was a student at Fenger High and a gang member, but while at the school he turned his life around and was planning to go to college. He was working at a Wendy's in May when he was fatally shot. His girlfriend had been shot to death a month earlier.

Lee McCullum, a former student of Liz Dozier, was shot and killed in May. His girlfriend, Tiara Parks, was shot and killed a month earlier. (© Facebook)

"I went to his funeral, like I go to all the funerals, and I went to his burial like I go to all the burials. And I couldn't help but think, as I saw his casket lowered in the ground, what potential the world lost when they lost Lee."

Dozier notes that the young people who are often the victims of crime in Chicago get caught up with what's happening in the city, and that they're good kids "with this immense amount of stress and trauma from living in what I liken to a war zone."

By her second or third year as a principal, Dozier had attended more than 13 funerals of students from her school. After that, she stopped counting because it was too difficult.


Programs to help

Working with Chicago Beyond, Dozier is hoping to bring hope to the young people of her city. The nonprofit is one of many groups that helps fund and provide programs to youth to guide them away from gang life and violence.

One of the groups that Chicago Beyond funds is a theatre program called Storycatchers.

Dozier notes that she has worked in some of the city's roughest neighbours and in jails, and that she didn't initially have a lot of hope for a program involving theatre.

"When I first heard of Storycatchers … I thought this is the most ridiculous, corny program I have ever heard of in my life," she says. "Then I actually went to see Storycatchers and saw what they do and I was literally blown away."

Storycatchers works with youth who are involved in the criminal justice system, and draws out their personal stories through plays, music and dance. Simply put, the kids are able to express their trauma and deal with that trauma.

"If you talk to the people in the program, it's quite amazing in that, them having that release point  someplace to really sit with their trauma, deal with it, talk about it and not have it be so isolating and having to deal with alone has been really powerful. It's changed lives."

When asked if she thinks 2017 will be a less violent year for Chicago, Dozier recognizes the many people and groups working to help curb the behaviour that leads to gangs, guns and violence.

"I am hopeful. I'm a hopeful person. I believe in the power of our communities."

Chicago police secure the scene where two people, including a four-year-old child, were shot in the Marquette Park neighborhood in July. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)