Black Boys, Grief, and Guns in Urban Schools

Nora Gross, joint doctoral candidate in sociology and education, examines how students grieve and recover after gun violence kills peers.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

By Katelyn Silva

In 2008, Nora Gross was running a student writing center within a Chicago high school when a drowning accident claimed the lives of three public school students.

“It was not just an unimaginable loss to their families, but a profound loss to the school and their friends, some of whom did not easily recover,” says Gross, whose experience of processing grief with her students led her to earn a master’s degree in the sociology of education.

With time, her interest in the student grieving process in high-poverty, urban areas increased, particularly in relation to gun violence.

“I wanted to understand how the particular kind of emotional experience or trauma of losing multiple friends to gun violence affects urban students’ experience with school and their ideas about their own futures,” says Gross, now a joint doctoral candidate in sociology and education. 

As a doctoral student, Gross did ethnographic research for two years in an all-boys public charter high school in a high-poverty area of Philadelphia. The summer prior to her arrival, the school lost a student to gun violence. In her second year on site, the school community lost two more young men in separate incidents.

Gross, who received the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, examines how the school’s surviving students dealt with the deaths of their peers and how the adults in the building supported (or sometimes failed to support) them, while giving voice to the grief and trauma of Black male students.

When asked what she hopes readers will take away from her work, Gross says, “We all need to better understand and appreciate the full complexity of Black boys’ emotional lives because it’s necessary to understand how they grieve in order to support them.”

In addition to her research on gun violence and grieving, Gross collaborated with John L. Jackson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology, on a documentary that describes life through the eyes of Southern African American gay men. The film, Making Sweet Tea, was co-directed and co-produced by Jackson and Gross and includes a score by Guthrie Ramsey, Professor of Music. It premiered in September.