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Journalists Linda Lutton and Alex Kotlowitz visit Columbia College Chicago

Harper High School
Harper High School (Photo credit: reallyboring)

Last Tuesday, journalists Linda Lutton and Alex Kotlowitz came and talked to a class at Columbia College Chicago about the work they did at Harper High School, 6520 S. Wood Street, in Chicago.  The two journalists, along with Ben Calhoun, who was not in attendance, went to Harper High School and spent five months trying to understand the gun violence that was going on in the community around the school.

They decided to do a story on Harper High School after they discovered how many students that attended or had attended there had been shot over the course of one school year.  The principal of Harper, Leonetta Sanders, allowed the journalists to come into the school because she trusted Lutton, who covers education at WBEZ in Chicago.

On their first day at Harper, Sanders gave the journalists a list of students and faculty that of which might be easier to talk to or get stories from.  Lutton found herself on a wireless microphone with Principal Sanders on the first day, while Kotlowitz attached himself to two social workers who worked at the schol.

Kotlowitz recalled one of the children, Thomas, who had seen a lot of violence throughout his life. He was frequently in one of the social worker’s office talking to her.

“This kid was the Forest Gump of violence,” Kotlowitz said.  Kotlowitz said that Thomas had witnessed his brother being shot on three separate occasions, along with witnessing people get shot in the leg and face. Thomas witnessed his first murder at the age of ten when he was at a birthday party. Thomas also witnessed the murder of a fellow classmate.

Kotlowitz and Lutton worked to earn the trust of the students at Harper.

“They saw us the first day, then the second day, and then the third day and it became less of a novelty,” Lutton said.

When talking to the children, they made sure not to use their last names for audio.  They also made sure that the kids’ safety wouldn’t be jeopardized if the audio were to be put on the radio.

Lutton shared a story from her time at Harper that showed how easy it was for the kids to have access to guns.  The students told Lutton that there were “dirty” and “clean” guns on the street. They told her that the dirty guns sometimes had murders on them and the clean guns were sometimes reported stolen from the previous owner after they were sold. The Harper students also shared with Lutton that they could easily get guns from guys in the gang. One of the Harper students had access to his first gun at the age of 12.

The two-hour audio of the journalist’s journey at Harper High School is one of the most downloaded episodes of “This American Life.” This story has had local and national impact.  Karen Lewis, who is the head of the school board in Chicago, cried when listening to the story.  Michelle Obama, who spoke at Harper a few weeks ago, didn’t mention the “This American Life” story directly, however, she did bring up a few things that were in the story. According to Huffington Post, Obama told the students at Harper to concentrate on their education.

Read and listen to their story here: “This American Life” Harper High School

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