Between scouting banquet halls for eighth-grade graduation and disciplining a boy who bit a classmate, Principal Aaron Rucker spotted five gang members near William H. Ryder Elementary and pulled his silver Range Rover to the curb.
The former U.S. Army Reserve major and Chicago cop eyed them with suspicion and familiarity. One sauntered over, clasped Rucker’s hand and asked whether he needed anything. Not today, Rucker told him, but he’d let him know.
The exchange was part of Rucker’s street diplomacy to keep violence from spilling into his classrooms on the city’s South Side. These gang members, “old G’s” as Rucker calls them, have pledged to keep drugs and fighting away from school grounds. Their younger counterparts, however, use social media to intimidate students and have turned the neighborhoods around Ryder and other elementary schools into free-fire zones.
“It’s not the old Gs shooting the young kids,” said Rucker, 45. “They don’t want that on their consciences.”
Rucker’s efforts to negotiate the gang world illustrate how violence pervades the third-largest U.S. school system, complicates efforts to address its $1 billion deficit and undermines the education of its students.
Last year, there was a shootout in front of Ryder, and Rucker watches constantly for signs that gangbangers are getting a grip on his older students. In August, his job will get more difficult as he takes in children from a school about five blocks away that includes rival gang territory.
When Chicago in May moved to close 49 underused and underperforming elementary schools, it exempted high schools partly for fear of making students cross gang lines. Yet those gangs don’t threaten just older teenagers in a city where 34 children younger than 17 were among last year's 506 homicides, according to a Chicago Tribune tally.
So the city, which saw 26 shooting incidents and seven homicides this past weekend alone, will hold its breath as pupils from the shuttered grade schools navigate those same gang boundaries. A wrong step can get them shot.
“Nobody wants blood on their hands,” Rucker said.
The outcome will help determine the future of Chicago’s 403,000 students and its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a 53-year-old Democrat who was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff before getting elected in 2011. Emanuel appoints the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools and its board members.
The city’s schools have improved since 1987, when William Bennett, President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, labeled them the nation’s worst. The district last month projected the highest graduation rate since it began its current method of calculation in 1999. Yet even that record was 63 percent, about 15 percentage points lower than the national average.
And in the 106 high schools protected from closing for fear of gang boundaries, fewer than a third of 11th-graders met state testing standards last year.
“If your school policy is driven by gang violence, then you’ve lost the war, and you’re not doing kids and their families a service,” said Eric Nadelstern, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University and a former deputy school chancellor in New York City.
District officials reject that criticism as too simplistic because the decision not to close high schools also considered the number of students affected, distances they’d have to travel and preparation time. The city’s plan will ensure safety and improve education, said Jadine Chou, the schools’ chief safety and security officer.
“We actually believe that we have the right strategy to protect our children,” Chou said in an interview.
In any case, the violence helps explain why the district has handed some of its most challenging posts to people such as Rucker, who draws on all his experiences, from patrolling Chicago streets to walking a prison yard filled with Taliban detainees at Bagram Air Force base near Kabul, Afghanistan.
“I’ve watched over 37 prisoners that are hard core, that would like to slit my neck,” he said. “You think I’m going to blink? Sometimes, I feel like the mentality is that I have to go to war, meaning not necessarily against another regime, but against the ideas of gangs, poverty, ignorance.”
For Rucker, that means instilling a sense of both order and opportunity at Ryder, where 28 percent of children are special-education students and 77 percent poor enough for free or reduced-price meals. The school, with pupils in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is bounded by territories of the Black P Stones, Gangster Disciples and their factions.
At 8:45 on a May morning, Rucker made his way around Ryder’s grounds, his boyish looks belying a sometimes labored gait, the byproduct of an ankle injured while reacting to a rocket-propelled grenade blast in Afghanistan. He took note of gang graffiti on the playground’s blue plastic slide.
A year ago, a shootout erupted in front of Ryder before classes, said teacher Michelle McDaniels. The incident was unremarkable, she said; students are well acquainted with gunshots and gangs that use social media to boast and harass.
Instagram photos and Twitter postings using the hashtags #blackpstone, #gangsterdisciple and the names of other Chicago gangs depict men flashing hand signs and rolls of $100 bills with messages like “He try to rob my fam so it’s goin down.”
YouTube videos show gang members on dark corners talking about territory, including a short posting from the area around Ryder controlled by a faction of the P Stones.
“It is very difficult to avoid gang activity when you are fearful that if you don’t join them, you will become victimized by them,” said McDaniels, 45, who teaches language arts and social studies.
Rucker combats that dread with a mix of nurturing and swagger. He isn’t shy about enumerating his accomplishments, and while he jokes with his staff and rewards them with flowers, he’s also quick to write up infractions.
He concentrates hardest on children who show promise but are struggling. In February, on Rucker’s first full day as principal, he noticed a crowd on the playground gathered around a seventh-grader and his grandfather. The boy wore a sign around his neck that said, “I steal, so watch me.”
The grandfather, Renard Alexander, said he wanted to teach the 13-year-old a lesson after he was caught stealing $25 in candy from a grocery store. Alexander, 53, a social worker who counsels parolees, said he didn’t think any other punishment would get through to the boy, whose mother was sent to prison for seven years for beating him.
“Sometimes, physical punishment only makes the child more stubborn,” Alexander said later. “If you humiliate them in front of their friends, that’s what they need. If you want to act like a clown, then you’ll look like one.”
Rucker was furious. He grabbed the sign and threw it away.
“I said, ‘Listen to me, you are not punishing him, you are scarring him,’” Rucker recalled. “I said, ‘What you did, he will remember the rest of his life. But can you honestly say he’ll never steal anything the rest of his life?’”
Three months after the incident, Rucker noticed Gothic script inked on the boy’s hands. He insisted it was doodling. Rucker saw it as a sign he was interested in the Black P Stones. The principal told him to wash it off.
“He’s still sort of soft,” Rucker said. Any Ryder pupils involved in gangs outside the school are holders of drugs and lookouts for police, he said, though there are children “on the fast track to becoming shot-callers.”
Rucker made his reputation at the school during one of his last patrols before he left the police force to concentrate on his principal job. Rucker had told a school assembly that he was a cop, but nobody believed him, said John Walker, a 14-year-old honor-roll student. Then Rucker caught Walker breaking the city curfew, and the student spread the word.
“I treat him more like as a big brother to me, because I don’t really have anybody to look up to,” Walker said in an interview at the school. “I don’t want to be a gangbanger like some young kids over there,” he said, motioning to the playground.
When misbehaving students face suspension, Rucker prefers not to send them home. Instead, he uses a process he learned in uniform: restorative justice.
Rucker makes children explain disputes. Finding a conflict’s root restores peace, he said, and making kids talk is part of almost every encounter.
“It’s easy for them to ‘Uh-huh, uh-uh,’” he said, mimicking students’ mumbled responses. “I want them to get in the custom of speaking articulately, even in the face of adversity or when they’re upset. Because violence starts with not being able to talk.”
A fifth-grader sent to Rucker for making what a teacher thought was an obscene gesture stood and gazed silently at the floor.
“Look at me,” Rucker said. “I’m not mad at you. I just want you to be honest and see what she saw. Does it look like you’re doing your work? Use your words.”
“I didn’t do nothing,” the boy replied, tears welling in his eyes. “I want to call my mama.”
“Stop,” Rucker said. “This is no time to cry right now. Look at me. Nobody’s here to harm you. Does Ms. McDaniels try to teach you? Use your words, son.”
“Yes,” the boy replied.
Rucker said he learned the approach in part by trying to defuse domestic disturbances as a cop, working as a patrolman in a district that includes Ryder.
He was raised in the far South Side neighborhood of West Pullman and attended Catholic schools before going to St. Norbert’s College in Wisconsin.
After losing his basketball scholarship when his grades slipped, Rucker joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to pay for school. He served on active Army duty for about a year after college.
Rucker earned the nickname “Spring Butt” at the military police academy for his eagerness to answer questions. He joined the Chicago Police Department in 1991. Later he pursued three postgraduate degrees and teaching certifications, landing his first full-time school job as a special-education teacher in 1997. For years, he kept three careers going: a daytime teacher, a cop on nights and weekends, and a periodic soldier.
Rucker served two tours in Afghanistan, arranging the transfer of troops, supplies and even an Afghan family relocated for its protection. In 2003, he said, he was part of a military-police unit that processed and fingerprinted Taliban prisoners at Bagram.
The deployment reinforced childhood lessons. He remembers hearing about a cousin strip-searched by police on a sub-zero day. The cousin told his parents, who called Rucker’s mother, who phoned his aunts. By week’s end, every male in the family had heard, Rucker said, and many were left with a resentment of police that persists to this day.
In 2002, before Rucker arrived at Bagram, two men died when they were chained to ceilings and beaten, according to a 2005 report by the New York Times, which obtained a copy of the investigative file. Other prisoners were kneed in the legs, isolated and deprived of sleep.
Rucker said he had heard mess-hall conversations about mistreatment and didn’t want that to happen on his watch. Soldiers in his detachment provided inmates with Korans, prayer rugs and even tea, he said.
“This was the Taliban and it was a heated time,” Rucker said. “I just made sure my people did everything by the book.”
Returning to Chicago after his 2005 discharge, Rucker married Crystal Watson, a fellow police officer. They have a 6-year-old daughter, Carleigh, who attends a private Christian school.
The family lives in a two-story brick house in the Beverly Hills neighborhood, a 10-minute drive from Ryder but a world away. He can point out all the homes of cops and firefighters who are his neighbors.
Ryder parents wanted Rucker as principal because they liked his resume and because he’s a male authority figure, said Gwen Holland-Hunter, the mother of a second-grader, who sits on the Parents Advisory Council.
“There’s a sense of order in the schools now,” she said.
That will be tested in August when Morgan Elementary, which is closing, sends students to Ryder. Some will have to cross boundaries between Gangster Disciples and Black P Stones.
Dropping off her fifth-grade daughter at Morgan on the May day after the Board of Education closed the school, Naiela Buckner pointed to apartments where she’s seen gang activity.
“It’s war going on,” said Buckner, 33. “The kids are going to get caught up in the crossfires.”
District leaders are vowing to keep them safe with customized security plans. That includes spending more than $15 million citywide on a “safe passage” program that pays community residents to monitor routes where students walk.
Administrators decided that no high schools would be shuttered to avoid “placing students in great harm,” Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Emanuel’s hand-picked schools CEO, told a closing commission in January.
Yet independent hearing officers raised the same concerns about elementary schools.
Ryder and Morgan “lie within depressed neighborhoods with histories of violence,” and students would have to cross gang lines and pass alleys and abandoned buildings, David H. Coar, a former federal judge, wrote in a May report. “Violence is a fact in the City of Chicago and in the neighborhoods involved in this school action in particular.”
At the May 22 meeting at which the board voted on the closings, Byrd-Bennett said that the district must reallocate resources because it has 145,000 fewer school-age children than in 2000. The closings are expected to save about $43 million a year in operating expenses while allowing the system to avoid $438 million in capital costs during the next decade.
Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. said at the meeting that savings didn’t allay his fears.
“It’s very challenging to say that we know that these young people are going to be safe,” said Burnett, whose family lived in Cabrini-Green, the mostly demolished project that long defined Chicago public housing’s reputation as violent warehouses for the poor.
Emanuel has said his administration will “ensure every child in this city has access to an education that matches their full potential.” As part of that effort, the mayor has tapped local companies to help raise $50 million in private money to pay for youth-violence prevention and intervention.
Besides the costs for increased school security, Emanuel has beefed up police patrols, which the city says has helped reduce crime. Through June 16, Chicago had 162 homicides and 738 shootings, declines of 31 percent and 27 percent, respectively, over the same time the year before, according to police statistics.
In hopes of making that trend hold as Morgan combines with Ryder, Rucker is working with police and school administrators on a transition plan. “Community watchers” will stand post, Morgan’s security officer will join Ryder’s, and Ryder will have access to a metal detector and enhanced camera system, according to a draft plan.
Even so, not all of the parent-patrol members monitoring Ryder’s grounds are optimistic.
“Let’s be real,” said Ronald Jackson, 50, a member who opposed the school closings. “It’s not going to really be a safe passage.”
Rucker, walking to his car on a recent night, pointed to several boys playing basketball on the playground. He suggested the scene showed they’re not worried about safety, and he recalled Army commanders who ingrained in him the idea that fear is something that can be controlled.
Inside the school, it isn’t so easily dismissed. A first-floor bulletin board displayed Martin Luther King Day essays by fourth-graders asked to write about the civil-rights leader’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
All five children had the same dream: to survive.