A Chicago high school is reeling from a shooting that left two dead and two others wounded, another tragedy in a district that has long wrestled with gun violence.
As students at Benito Juarez High School were dismissed before 2 p.m. Friday, someone fired shots outside the school near 1400 block West Cermak on Chicago’s Lower West Side, according to authorities.
Three boys and one girl were shot and taken to nearby Stroger Hospital, where one was pronounced dead on arrival and another boy was in critical condition and later died, officials said.
The other two victims had non-life threatening injuries, said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Merritt.
In a statement posted to social media Saturday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the incident a “senseless act of violence and disregard for life” that “highlights the pressing need for illegal guns to be taken off our streets and out of the hands of those seeking to cause harm.”
“We will work with our school-based teams and the counselors alongside our community-based partners to support staff and students during this traumatic period,” Lightfoot added “This cannot be who we are as a city - we must do better for our young people and the rest of our residents, who all deserve to feel & be safe.”
On Saturday, Chicago Police released surveillance photos of a possible suspect and asked for help identifying the person.
During a Friday evening press conference, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown and district officials would not confirm whether the victims were students at the school, but the mayor’s statement noted she was praying for the “students recovering in the hospital.”
The Cook County Medical Examiner identified the two victims as 14-year-old Nathan Billegas and 15-year-old Brandon Perez.
Chicago Public Schools has long grappled with gun violence and how to meet the mental health needs of students that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
In 2022, more than 60 school-aged children were fatally shot, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Earlier this month, a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed near Michele Clark Magnet High School, according to WTTW.
Just three days into this new school year, four Schurz High School students sitting at an ice cream shop patio across from the campus on the Northwest Side were injured — two critically — in a drive-by shooting.
“Parents send their children to school expecting their safe return home,” U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who is running for mayor, said in a statement. “Instead, gunfire rang out as students were being dismissed for the weekend. For our children and our communities, the trauma of gun violence has become familiar. We cannot go on like this.”
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker also weighed in on Twitter.
“Schools are the cornerstone of neighborhoods and students deserve to feel safe,” he tweeted, adding “We must put an end to these unspeakable tragedies and rid our communities of gun violence.”
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez, an alum of Benito Juarez, said at the police press conference that the district was searching for answers Friday evening. “Anything that is even close to our schools, we are always very concerned,” Martinez said.
The district was focused on providing “significant support” to the school in the face of the tragedy, he added.
Jadine Chou, chief safety and security officer at Chicago Public Schools, said the district would work with school administrators to have additional crisis and grief counseling ready when students and staff return Monday. They will also have additional security on campus and police off-campus out of precaution, she added.
Critics have called on the district to provide more mental health support to address the impact of neighborhood gun violence on students. Last year, two Simeon Career Academy students were shot and killed within a few hours. The district dispatched crisis counselors for a few days, but some students and staff told Chalkbeat it wasn’t enough to meet the need.
“There were so many kids that needed help,” Simeon student Jamal Anderson recalled a few months after those shootings.
Following the Juarez shooting, students scattered at the sounds of gunshots, according to reports. The school went into lockdown until 3:30 p.m., according to the Sun-Times.
In a statement, the district said the shooting was under investigation and that the safety of its school community was top priority. Chicago Public Schools will provide crisis team resources to support students and staff.
The district was in close contact with the Chicago Police Department, which is investigating the shooting, and was working to keep the Benito Juarez community informed.
“Our thoughts are with all those impacted by this tragedy,” the district said.
Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at email@example.com.