Mounting gun violence takes toll on NEIU students


Courtesy of Terrie Albano

Gun violence in Chicago continues to take the lives of minority youths and young adults.

Terrie Albano, Writer

Chicago’s gun violence epidemic affects a surprising number of students at NEIU in traumatic ways that are often hidden and unspoken.

In an informal written survey of 50 people (45 NEIU students, 5 NEIU staff or frequent NEIU visitor) conducted at the cafeteria Nov. 15, 40 respondents (80 percent) said they themselves had either experienced directly or knew someone who had been shot or had been in an incident that involved a gun.

Seven of those 40 said they were personally involved, 17 said they knew someone and 16 said they knew someone who knew someone affected by gun violence.

Johnie Baloue, an NEIU senior and CMT major, began a blog to memorialize his close friend, 19-year-old Jonathan Santiago, who was shot and killed in Humboldt Park in 2013. He started it after Chicago reached its 500th homicide this year.

Almost 90 percent of the city’s homicides are shootings, according to Homicide Watch Chicago. Chicago police have reported more than 4,000 shootings and over 700 homicides from Jan. 1 through Thanksgiving weekend.

Baloue said Santiago was an amazing young man, selfless, kind and supportive who helped him through a health crisis.

“The death of Jonathan has haunted me for years,” Baloue wrote on his blog, “and I have a hole in my heart as a result. The reason why is I couldn’t understand how someone could take another life with no remorse.”

Another NEIU student was caught in the seemingly endless web of tragedy and trauma.

Dalia Aragon, a senior and psychology and justice studies major, sunk into her own nightmare when her younger brother, Israel Aragon Jr, 21, was killed a block from their home in East Albany Park on Sept. 7.

Israel, a graduate from St. Benedict’s High School who also attended Wilbur Wright Community College, finished work late on Sept. 6 and decided to hang out with friends. He was walking home in the early hours of Sept. 7 when he was fatally shot. Dalia drove Israel to work that day. She was the last person in her family to see Israel alive.

In addition to the grief, Dalia and her family had to deal with the indignities of racism. President-elect Donald Trump promoted those stereotypes as part of his campaign.

“We’re Latino. When something happened like this, right away they say, ‘Oh, he’s doing something bad. He’s a gang banger.’ That makes me really upset because people don’t take five minutes to think first – who was his family? Who de donde viene? His valores,” said the shaken mother of three, Irma Aragon, during a Nov. 3 interview at the family’s home.

Dalia and Irma said that an hour before the wake, the funeral home called and said that they could not have services there because they heard Israel’s murder was gang-related. It took calls from the detective on the case and the parish priest to convince the owner that her son was not a gang member.

Additionally, on the day of the funeral, the cemetery refused to accept the body even though the family had a contract and paid for a plot, Irma and Dalia said.

“My son died. They took our lives too. We’re still here but we’re really not here. We function like zombies,” Irma said. “My son was not perfect. He made mistakes. But he was not walking around with a gun, or with a knife.”

“We work really hard for our family. My daughters work hard, studying, for a better future and to be a good citizen,” Irma said. “He was a family kid.”

The Aragon siblings, along with Dalia’s boyfriend, liked to hangout, watch DVDs, play video games and go eat wings – normal stuff young people do. After Israel was killed, Dalia had to do abnormal things like contact the college where her younger sister Annette is enrolled to let them know why she would be absent from classes.

“She got a lot of support,” Dalia said, adding that the college staff told her, “We’ll take care of it. We’re here to help her transition back to school when she’s ready.”

However in Dalia’s case, she did not know who she should contact beside her professors. Although her sister goes to a private college with a student body half the size as NEIU, Aragon said she thought perhaps there was an office that could help her, especially when she returned to classes. She said she called NEIU’s Student Support Services but never got in contact with them.

“I emailed my teachers but no one really got back to me,” she said. “Some professors gave me their condolences but didn’t give me a transition plan for when I returned to classes.”

“I don’t need special treatment but there is a whole bunch of things going on. No one checks in,” Argon said.

Aragon said she had missed quite a few classes and “bombed” her midterms. She said she used to speak a lot in class and now she is quiet.

“I don’t think they are aware that after the (funeral) services there are still things you have to deal with,” she said.

If a student faces a traumatic event, Division of Student Affairs is where to go. Interim Assistant Dean of Students Christopher Maxwell said the student should contact their professors first and then contact Student Affairs.

Maxwell said the first thing the office would do is direct the student to counseling services, which is located on the main campus and is free for NEIU students. The office can also work with the student and professors to figure out their schedule, to see where they are in academics and to investigate what options they have.

The attitude would be “what can we do and how can we help?” Maxwell said. The office will follow up one-or two-weeks later with a call, “Hey how are you? Is everything OK? What are your thoughts right now?

“We don’t want anyone to fall through the cracks. Or feel the institution is not looking out for them,” he said.

Maxwell is chair of the Campus Violence Prevention Committee and said they are planning to launch the Red Flag Campaign in the spring. This is a program developed with students, college personnel, and domestic and sexual violence prevention advocates in order to educate the campus public about relationship violence and strategies to prevent it.

NEIU also hosts an annual Art in Response to Violence conference every fall semester.

The Division of Student Affairs is located on the fifth floor of the administration building and its phone number is (773) 442-4528.

Student Health and Counseling Services  is located on the main campus in room D-024 and their number is (773) 442- 4650.

Gaudy Cardona contributed to this story.