‘Still processing’: Juarez students, staff return to class after shooting outside school

On Monday morning, Elena Jacobs struggled to get out of bed. She’s a special education teacher at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School, where four teens were shot — two of them fatally — right after dismissal Friday

Normally, she’s at the school building by 7 a.m. preparing for her freshman and senior students to show up. 

“I really wanted to walk in with the other teachers and be there in the beginning for students,” Jacobs said. “Just showing up is a huge act and my students who are showing up, it’s a huge act of courage.”

Jacobs and her colleagues stepped back from the routine structure Monday to create space for students to share how they were feeling. 

For Jacobs, that meant arts and craft supplies. One colleague purchased snacks for their students. The school brought in therapy dogs through a partnership with the Cook County’s sheriff office. Teachers encouraged the students to talk to them, peers, or even the school counselor if they needed support. 

Juarez Principal Juan Carlos Ocon had held an emergency staff meeting Sunday to plan for the week. He made an all-school announcement welcoming students and explaining the additional resources available to students and staff, a district spokesperson said. The school adjusted the schedule, offered healing spaces, invited 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 almost 1,600 students. Jacobs said that while the school has support this week, she knows that students and teachers will need longtime support to heal from what happened. Some of them witnessed the shooting or heard the gunshots. 

Later in the afternoon, students gathered in the school’s courtyard to honor the lives of Brandon Perez, 15, and Nathan Billegas, 14, who were fatally shot Friday. White, red, yellow, and black balloons filled the air as “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth played on a stereo. 

Benito Juarez high school students released balloons during a walkout and march to honor the lives of Brandon Perez, 15, and Nathan Billegas, 14, who were killed during a shooting outside the school last Friday. (Samantha Smylie/Chalkbeat)

Students exchanged hugs, wore T-shirts with photos of Perez, held up signs and huddled together to talk as community members wore green vests and created a protective circle around students as they mourned the loss of their peers. They also provided students with hot drinks and balloons as they stood in 20-degree weather.  

Throughout the day, a student-created memorial outside of the school building for Perez and Billegas grew with flowers, signs, and other items giving people a glimpse into the victims’ lives. 

Billegas attended nearby Chicago Bulls College Prep, a campus of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. Noble said in a statement, “We send our condolences to the families of these students and we stand in solidarity with the Benito Juarez High School Community as they grieve during this time.”

Both victims’ families are raising funds for funeral and memorial services. 

“Nathan was a very intelligent, outgoing, and kindhearted young boy,” Billegas’ older sister Destiny wrote on a fundraising page.  “If you knew Nathan, you knew he would go out of his way for anybody if they needed it. He had the biggest heart.”

Perez’s family wrote on their GoFundMe page that he was interested in construction and electricity and wanted to become a business owner. He even took a seasonal part-time job at a construction company to gain basic skills. 

“Brandon loved being around his family, playing video games with his cousins and friends, enjoying soccer, and losing himself in movies/music,” the family wrote. “One thing is for sure, he will be missed immensely by everyone who had the opportunity to be part of his life.”

Liz Winfield, a multimedia art teacher who has been at Juarez since 1998, said that Monday was a really hard day, but being back in the building to connect with students and staff has been helpful for her to process what happened Friday.

“Staff created a list of teachers who have free periods that could cover for someone else’s class and kids if somebody needed to step out for a little bit,” Winfield said. “People have been checking in on each other during lunch or when we pass each other in the halls.”

Winfield also mentioned that staff members have been in touch with the Chicago Teachers Union to get more information on trauma-informed teaching so that teachers can have resources to guide them on how to interact with students during a traumatic time. Classroom teachers like Winfield often don’t have resources or knowledge to talk to students about trauma or, in this case, gun violence. 

“As teachers we are used to just always having the solution and a plan for success,” Winfield said. “When something like this happens, there’s no blueprint, map, or special formula that you can follow that will guarantee that the student feels cared for or gets what they need.”

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.