- Chicago's Safe Passage program protects kids walking to school from gangs
- Chicago expanded the program this school year amid dozens of school closings
- School officials: "No major incidents" on routes, some attendance increases
- Some community members aren't convinced Safe Passage is worthwhile -- or safe
Anxiety simmered in the days before Chicago's school year began. Everyone there knew about the city's intractable gang problems, the explosive violence that came with it -- and the dangerous, shifting territories schoolchildren might cross even more often just to get to school.
Chicago Public Schools had just gone through the largest school consolidation in U.S. history -- 55 schools absorbed students from 49 that closed. Before the first day of classes in August, Chicago schools invested $155 million in some that remained open: new science labs, computers, libraries, air conditioning and art rooms meant to encourage parents to keep their children enrolled. To assuage fears about the journey to school, $8 million was spent to hire 600 additional workers for Safe Passage, a program that stations the watchful eyes of adults along popular walking routes to schools.
"The city of Chicago is on watch for the children of Chicago," Mayor Rahm Emanuel bellowed to a roomful of Safe Passage workers in glowing yellow vests before the school year began.
Still, critics of the school closings zeroed in on Safe Passage, arguing that hundreds of newly hired workers couldn't offer the protection their children needed, and that it wouldn't be necessary if students could attend schools closer to home.
Now closing in on the last months of of the school year, Chicago schools and the Chicago police say there have been "no major incidents" involving students on Safe Passage routes near their new schools during operating hours.
"In the few instances where an issue arose, police say the response time by officers was immediate, often times leading to arrest, because they were staffing the route along with other city workers," a March report from Chicago Public Schools said.
About half of students from schools that closed or consolidated in 2013 have improved attendance this school year, too, the report said.
Still, there are fights along the routes and shootings nearby. In December, a 15-year-old girl walking to her high school on the city's northwest side was hit in the head, dragged between two houses and raped about a half-block away from a Safe Passage route. The incident occurred around 6 a.m., before Safe Passage workers were on duty.
The rape deepened skepticism among those critical of the school closings and Safe Passage, community members said. For those running Safe Passage routes, it strengthened resolve.
"We are speaking with schools and families throughout the year. We've stayed in touch," said Jadine Chou, security director for Chicago Public Schools. "We're trying to adapt as best as possible to situations as they come up."
'How many lives did we save?'
Safe Passage launched in 2009 after a string of intimidation and violence faced by young people, including the beating death of 16-year-old Derrion Albert. The Fenger High School honor student was caught in a street fight and beaten with a railroad tie wielded by a group of young men. The teen's death was captured on video and drew national attention from media and politicians.
There had long been crossing guards and parents walking their children to school in Chicago, but Safe Passage was different: "the most structured version" of a safe routes program used by an urban school district, Chou said. It laid out designated routes marked with bright signs, and put the adults from those communities in direct contact with schools and police during peak travel hours.
Chicago Public Schools provides training and some oversight, but the school system relies on local neighborhood organizations to hire and manage 1,200 workers stationed along Safe Passage routes in the mornings and afternoons. They might be retirees, college students or local residents between jobs. Often, Safe Passage managers said, they're people known to those who live in the communities they monitor.
It's the workers' job to listen and watch for signs of trouble -- an unusually large gathering of students, an unfamiliar adult lurking nearby, a whisper from a child who knows something is coming -- and alert police and school officials.
"If they feel uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, that adult can step and intervene," Chou said. "The kids come to get acclimated to having those adults there, and that consistency."
After the school closings were announced last year, Chou and her team went to work expanding Safe Passage to more schools and new routes. They met with educators, parents and police to identify routes, designed a map and went back again for more feedback. Chou said they continue to update routes.
Before school began this year, "parents were a little apprehensive about what the future would bring. They did not know whether the program could be expanded that much that quickly," Chou said. "Since then, in our conversations, we're getting very positive feedback. People see that the program is working very hard. We're trying to adapt as best as possible to situations as they come up."
While students are quick to buy in to the program, parents aren't so easily convinced, said the Rev. Autry Phillips, executive director Target Area Development Corporation, which runs Safe Passage routes on the city's south and west sides. Parents can choose where to send their children to school, and whether they'll allow them to make the walk at all. For many, there was lingering resentment about the school consolidations.
"Everybody was not happy about the closing of the schools. It's never our job to explain the political part of the administrative decision. We tried to stay away from that," Phillips said. "Our focus is being on the street to make sure our youth are safe.
"We don't want to replace the parent, but they trust in us. We're there every day. That's what we believe our biggest asset is to our communities."
Gradually, Safe Passage workers are noticing changes, he said: More parents say hello and more kids offer information. During Chicago's brutally cold winter, when Safe Passage workers spent time zipping coats and making sure sidewalks were clear, parents often arrived with coffee and hot chocolate.
More important, there are fewer drug dealers or gang bangers hanging around, Phillips said, at least during times when children come and go from school. Even criminals have come to understand the idea.
"We have to understand, even the criminal activity in our community is part of our community," Phillips said.
Still, prevention remains the focus, and the activity can be intense -- and hard to measure. One day, a worker recovered a handgun spotted while canvassing the route before students walked past, Phillips said.
"How many lives did we save that day?" Phillips said. "That one gun could have been planted to do something after school, and he or she could've hurt a whole lot of people.
"It's not like it's all wiping noses. We're doing the things that need to be done. I mean, it's Chicago."
'A visual Band-Aid'
But skepticism remains around Safe Passage, how it's designed and whether it works.
Alonso Zaragoza, a member of the school councils at Kelvyn Park High School and Lloyd Elementary School in the northwest area of the city, said the December rape near a Safe Passage route catalyzed interest in the program. But to many people, it's just a meaningless street sign.
"It's a visual Band-Aid," Zaragoza said.
The idea behind Safe Passage is a good one, he said, and in some communities, he thinks it's run effectively. But he worries about a lack of transparency around cost and whether routes are really safe.
He thinks some paths are poorly designed and maintained. He said he's seen too many Safe Passage workers talking on cell phones or sitting in warm cars to feel confident about the training they receive. Zaragoza would rather see routes designed and operated by local school officials, or run by block captains from the neighborhoods.
"I know that these workers are doing the best that they can," Zaragoza said. "I would blame the people who designed the routes. I don't think the accountability is there."
Elaine Allensworth, the director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, said there's little information available about Safe Passage and whether it works.
Research published in 2011 showed that Chicago students generally feel safe inside their school buildings, but less safe while traveling to and from school. The place they feel least safe, though, is the area just outside the school. It's an area where all students pass, but not necessarily under the watch of a teacher, parent or Safe Passage worker, Allensworth said.
Recently, they've seen some improvements in perceptions of safety around Chicago schools, she said, and how safe students, parents and teachers feel can mean a lot to a school's success.
"Perceptions of safety are really predictive of things like whether teachers stay in the school and whether students learn and come to school," Allensworth said. "The basic, minimum things parents want for the children is that they want them to be safe, and to feel safe. Then you would want them to learn and be engaged in school. If students are afraid at school, you do get problem with students avoiding school.
"They can't learn if they're not in school."
It's that fear that recently made an Illinois state representative try to offer an alternative to Safe Passage. Last month, a bill passed the Illinois House that would require Chicago Public Schools to provide free transportation to school for children who travel along Safe Passage routes.
Rep. Mary Flowers, a Democrat from Chicago, said parents should be able to hire a driver, use public transit or put their children on a school bus rather than worry about rape, gunfire, fistfights or a long, frigid walk to school.
"I went to the meetings, I heard the complaints, I saw the tears, I saw the fear in these children not knowing these routes," Flowers said. "This is a way I could give a child, a family, a little peace of mind."
In a statement, Chicago Public Schools spokesman Joel Hood called the bill, "a misguided and overreaching attempt to dismantle CPS' popular and successful Safe Passage program."
Hood said the program would cost $600 million over 10 years. Flowers said she didn't know how much it would cost, and that safety should be the priority.
The bill hasn't yet been taken up by the Illinois Senate.
Whether Safe Passage becomes smoother to run or harder to maintain really doesn't matter, said Chou, the Chicago schools chief safety and security officer. They expect to grow the program as needed, and build more relationships with parents and community members.
"Harder or easier," she said, "we're just doing the work."