CHICAGO (AP) - At his desk at North Lawndale College Prep High School, Gerald Smith keeps a small calendar that holds unimaginable grief.
In its pages, the dean and student advocate writes the name of each student who’s lost a family member, many of them to gun violence. And then he deploys the Peace Warriors - students who have dedicated themselves to easing the violence that pervades their world.
The Warriors seek out their heartbroken classmates. They offer a hug, and a small bag of candy.
Since September, Smith has added more than 160 names to that little book, roughly half the student body at this campus on Chicago’s West Side. And that doesn’t even include those whose friends have been killed.
“We would run out of candy,” says Smith, sadly.
It is hard and often anguishing work, keeping the peace. North Lawndale’s Peace Warriors do it in small and large ways. When invited to Parkland, Florida, after 17 people died in a school shooting there in February, they answered the call - to mourn together and to unite in what’s become a national youth movement aimed at stopping gun violence.
Weeks later, Alex King and D’Angelo McDade, seniors at North Lawndale, walked onto stage at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. with fists raised. They marveled at the masses of young people who’d joined the fight. Said King: “We knew this was going to be in the history books. And for me, it was like, ‘Wow! I’m actually being heard.’”
They continue to press their solution to urban violence: more jobs and investment in low-income communities like theirs. But that’s the long game.
First, the Peace Warriors must survive - and help their peers do the same....___“Good morning, good morning, good morning!”A small band of Peace Warriors greets students who make their way into the school’s main foyer after going through a bag check and metal detector.This is when the Warriors get a sense of how the day may go and where they may need to step in to maintain calm.Most everyone is upbeat, though perhaps a little sleepy. A few dance to old-school soul over the sound system, until a young woman arrives, sobbing. Two Peace Warriors rush to embrace her and escort her to the school office, where she can collect herself.When the group began in 2009, there were just 17 Peace Warriors on the school’s two campuses. Back then, that small corps spent much of its time breaking up fights, “interrupting nonsense,” as they call it. Since then, their ranks have grown to more than 120 - and fights have dropped markedly, Smith said.Now, the Peace Warriors focus more on running “peace circles,” mediating verbal altercations between students and tense exchanges on social media.Alexis Willis is among the newest recruits. Like the others, she had to learn the “Six Principles of Nonviolence” of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before she could