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Junior High Student Honored for Stand Against Gangs

February 10, 1990

CHICAGO (AP) _ Norvell Smith is a 14-year-old freedom fighter in her own neighborhood. Approached by tough gang recuiters at age 12, she decided to resist - a decision that has won her top honors at school.

Norvell travels mean streets to and from John Hope Community Academy, streets where wearing the wrong color, or just walking home, can be a fatal mistake.

In January, a 13-year-old classmate was killed in after-school crossfire between rival gangs, the second student slain while going to or from the public junior high school in the past six years.

″I lived in a gang environment all my life,″ Norvell, the youngest of seven children raised by a single mother, said Friday. ″My momma told us to stay away from all those bad ideas and get an education - and that’s what we’re doing.″

Last week the school, with the help of a drug- and gang-prevention program called Project Serve, held a ″Drug and Gang Awareness Super Bowl″ to honor students who are working to end the violence.

And seventh-grader Norvell was the show-stopper at an assembly of the school’s 950 students.

″You could hear almost a pin drop - that’s how good it was,″ eighth-grade teacher Jacqueline Cooney said of the girl’s award-winning speech.

In the speech, Norvell told her classmates: ″I’m sick and tired of these people coming into our neighborhoods, frightening our friends and families and putting ideas into our little brothers’ and sisters’ minds that gangs are cool.

″I say, the only thing that you can get out of being in a gang is a hole in your head or 6 feet under - take your choice.″

John Hope Community Academy, in the city’s South Side Englewood neighborhood, straddles an invisible line dividing the turf of two gangs.

The rules for survival along that boundary are sometimes deceptively simple, students say.

″You don’t go to that side of the boulevard, and if you do, you can’t wear blue and black - you have to wear red and black and wear caps to the left,″ explains 12-year-old Kinisha Gaston.

Assistant Principal Jim Murray acknowledged that when students leave school property, they face harassment by gang recruiters - often high school students.

But Murray said the school is making some inroads with the help of programs like Project Serve, in which off-duty law-enforcement officials work to educate students about the dangers of drugs and gangs.

″Our students - the vast majority of them - do not get involved in the gang community,″ he said. ″The children tune in to what is being said and they respond positively.″

Norvell said Friday that students who join gangs do so ″because they have low self esteem (and) want to belong.″

She said she was approached two years ago, on a day when she missed her bus, by a group of threatening girl recruiters.

″I didn’t want to be in a gang,″ Norvell said. ″I was thinking, ’If I do this, I’m going to be ruined for life - I’ll miss out on everything.‴

She told the girls she wouldn’t join the gang, a vow she has repeated many times since.

Since winning the ″Super Bowl″ this week, she said several gang members have told her they are thinking about her speech.

Most students, Norvell said simply, ″don’t want to join a gang and go to an early grave.″

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