Principal Leonetta Sanders and social worker Crystal Winfield-Smith
Principal Leonetta Sanders and social worker Crystal Winfield-Smith Credit: Bill Healy

There’s a moment in part one of the This American Life series on Harper High School where a social worker, Crystal Smith, is talking to a junior, Devonte, about his little brother. The teenager and the social worker are watching a camera-phone video that Devonte took of himself and his brother. Devonte watched it constantly. “He was a strong little boy, too,” Devonte says—to which Smith responds in the most cheerful, sweet, sad way imaginable: “Yeah, you could tell.” Months earlier, Devonte, while playing with a gun, accidentally shot his brother, and in the aftermath of the accident no one but Smith had bothered to get Devonte to open up about his feelings for the boy he loved and killed. (“Don’t nobody talk about it,” he told her. “Don’t nobody say nothing.”) WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton, journalist/documentarist Alex Kotlowitz, and This American Life‘s Ben Calhoun spent five months at the deeply troubled West Englewood school, and the stories they tell of the lives of Harper’s students and staff illuminate a culture of violence that has come to define Chicago but is hardly unique to it. Twenty-nine current and recent Harper High students were shot in the course of a single year. One student, Thomas, had in his short life witnessed no fewer than eight shootings—one ending in the death of a girl, Siretha “Nugget” White, at her tenth birthday party, another three involving Thomas’s brother, who’s now paralyzed. One student, Jordan, who tried to resist being “assigned” to a gang (assignment is automatic—and opting out is nearly impossible), described the chaos of the neighborhood in simple terms: “It’s a war zone.” That description comes fairly early on in the two-hour program, and you might think (hope) it’s the product of a teenager’s fondness for hyperbole. By the end of hour two, you’re all too aware that it’s not.