On Monday morning, Elena Jacobs struggled to get out of bed. She is a special education teacher at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School, where four teenagers were shot — two of them fatally — immediately after Friday’s dismissal.
Usually at 7 in the morning, she is in the school building and prepares for the departure of freshmen and senior students.
“I really wanted to go with the other teachers and be around the students early on,” Jacobs said. “Just showing up is a big act, and my students showing up is a big act of courage.”
Jacobs and her colleagues departed from the usual structure on Monday to create a space for students to share what they were feeling.
For Jacobs, that meant arts and crafts items. One colleague purchased snacks for his students. The school brought in therapy dogs in partnership with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Teachers encouraged students to talk to them, their peers, or even the school counselor if they needed support.
Juarez Principal Juan Carlos Ocan held an emergency staff meeting on Sunday to outline plans for the week. He made a school-wide announcement welcoming students and explaining additional resources available to students and staff, a district spokesperson said. The school adjusted schedules, offered spaces for wellness, asked students to fill out a support form and encouraged them to take advantage of mental health days.
Juarez has seven school counselors and two social workers for nearly 1,600 students. Jacobs said that while the school has support this week, she knows students and teachers will need continued support to heal from what happened. Some of them witnessed the shooting or heard the shots.
Later in the afternoon, students gathered in the schoolyard to honor the lives of 15-year-old Brandon Perez and 14-year-old Nathan Billegas, who were fatally shot on Friday. White, red, yellow and black balloons filled the air as “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth played on the stereo.
Students exchanged hugs, wore T-shirts with photos of Perez, held signs and gathered together to talk, while community members wore green vests and formed a protective circle around the students as they mourned the loss of their peers. They also provided students with hot drinks and balloons as they stood in the 20 degree weather.
Throughout the day, the student-created memorial outside the school building to Perez and Bilegas grew with flowers, signs and other items that give people a glimpse into the lives of the victims.
Bilegos attended nearby Chicago Bulls College Prep, a campus of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. In a statement, Noble said, “We extend our condolences to the families of these students and stand in solidarity with the Benito Juarez High School community as they grieve at this time.”
The families of both victims are collecting funds for funerals and memorial services.
“Nathan was a very smart, outgoing and kind boy,” Bilegas’ older sister Destiny wrote on fundraising page. “If you knew Nathan, you would know that he would go out of his way for anyone when he needed it. He had the biggest heart.”
The Peres family wrote on their GoFundMe page that he is interested in construction and electrical and wants to become a business owner. He even took a seasonal part-time job at a construction company to gain basic skills.
“Brandon loved being with his family, playing video games with his cousins and friends, enjoying football and losing himself in movies/music,” the family wrote. “One thing is for sure, he will be greatly missed by all who had the opportunity to be a part of his life.”
Liz Winfield, a multimedia arts teacher who has worked at Juarez since 1998, said Monday was a really tough day, but being back in the building to interact with students and staff helped her process what happened Friday.
“The staff created a list of teachers who had available hours that could cover someone’s classroom and kids if someone needed to step away for a bit,” Winfield said. “People would check on each other during lunch or when we passed each other in the hallways.”
Winfield also mentioned that staff contacted the Chicago Teachers Union for more information on trauma-informed learning so that teachers could have resources to help them learn how to interact with students during a traumatic period. Teachers like Winfield often don’t have the resources or knowledge to talk to students about trauma or, in this case, gun violence.
“As teachers, we’re used to always having a solution and a plan for success,” Winfield said. “When something like this happens, there’s no plan or map or special formula that you can follow that will ensure that the student feels cared for or gets what they need.”
Samantha Smiley is Chalkbeat Chicago’s state education reporter covering the state’s school districts, legislation, special education and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at firstname.lastname@example.org.