Black boys, grief, and guns in urban schools

In 2008, a group of Chicago Public Schools students were on a leadership retreat for Black male students roughly 40 miles outside the city. Ignoring the cold of the fall night, 16 of those students left their bunks to take paddle boats onto the river nearby, not knowing that the floor plugs had been removed for the season.

That decision would have a lasting effect on Nora Gross, joint doctoral candidate in sociology and education, who was running a student writing center within a Chicago high school at the time.

A young student of color looks upward with their hand on their mouth

“That drowning accident was not just the death of three beautiful children and an unimaginable loss to their families, but a profound loss to the school and their friends, some of whom did not easily recover,” she says, reflecting on the one-on-one time she spent with students because of her position. The experience of processing grief with her students made a lasting impact and changed her academic trajectory.

Over time, Gross’ interest in the student grieving process in high-poverty, urban areas increased, particularly in relation to gun violence.

Gun violence is a significant problem in cities across the U.S., like Chicago and Philadelphia. For example, shortly after the August 2019 mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Chicago saw 59 people shot, seven of them killed, in a single weekend. A recent report from the Journal of the American College of Surgeons states that Philadelphia experiences cluster shootings that can be classified as “mass shootings” at a rate that measures out to one every three months.

“The ‘mass shootings’ that happen on street corners in Black and Brown urban neighborhoods don’t get the same level of attention as a mass shooting at, for example, at a big concert or a movie theater,” notes Gross. “I wanted to understand how the particular kind of emotional experience or trauma of losing multiple friends to gun violence affects urban students’ experience with school and their ideas about their own futures.”

In 2013, Gross brought her questions to Penn through a unique dual-degree program that allows her to earn a Ph.D. in both sociology and education. Her co-chair advisors are Camille Charles, Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences in Penn Arts & Sciences, and Kathleen Hall, associate professor of education and anthropology in the Graduate School of Education.

This article was written by Katelyn Silva. Read more at Omnia.