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Chicago Kids Go Back to School Surrounded by Violence and Cops

Amid school closings and horrific levels of violence in their communities, students on Chicago's South Side returned to class this week guarded by cops and civilians patrolling the streets. But can the city's Safe Passage program protect them from...

by Jake Malooley
Aug 30 2013, 2:42pm

Safe Passage worker Theo Bridges stands guard at Halsted Street and Garfield Boulevard in Englewood, one of Chicago's most violent neighborhoods. All photos by Max Herman

Shaking off summer brain drain and heading back to class after three months of vacation is tough for any kid, but on Chicago’s South Side the worst part is getting to and from their schools. More than 500 people were murdered last year in the Midwestern city, and violent crime is clustered in a few poverty-stricken neighborhoods. There’s so much concern that children who have to cross gang turf as they travel from home to class and back will end up caught in the all-too-frequent crossfire that the police and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have rolled out a program called “Safe Passage"—miles of routes around schools are now patrolled by uniformed cops and around 1,200 unarmed workers in neon vests who are paid $10 an hour to stand guard on street corners.

The program is costing the city a whopping $15.7 million, which seems relevant given the massive budget problems the school system is dealing with. To cover a $1 billion deficit, CPS fired thousands of employees (including 1,700 teachers) and closed nearly 50 schools, most of them in the same low-income neighborhoods that are struggling with violence. Parents and community activists responded with massive protests all summer, and dozens of students boycotted schools this week. Meanwhile, 12,000 schoolchildren displaced as a result of the cuts (out of the 400,000 in the district) had to trek to their new schools, which for many of them involved passing through unfamiliar, potentially dangerous territory.

As the final bell rang Wednesday signalling the end of the third day of the school year, students bolted out of the doors of Nicholson Technology Academy, one of dozens of schools surrounded by Safe Passage streets. Nicholson, which took on students from shuttered Bontemps Elementary, is located in Englewood, the notorious South Side neighborhood whose persistent history of violence has earned it the nickname “Stranglewood.” Yesterday, a 23-year-old man was shot a block away from Englewood’s Bass Elementary, and on Monday, Streets and Sanitation workers making their rounds discovered the body of a man beaten to death and stuffed in a garbage can along the Nicholson Safe Passage route.

With that brutal incident fresh in their minds on Wednesday, parents went about the routine business of picking up their kids. Wearing a T-shirt that read “I Got That Good Good,” Princess White, 30, escorted her 13-year-old daughter, Brianna, past a group of police officers stationed in front of Nicholson. Princess was on edge because a friend was recently shot while riding his bike in the neighborhood—a case of mistaken identity, she said. “I’m really praying for a safe school year,” she told me, “because the kids’ education should not be affected by the stupidity that’s going down on the streets.”

“It’s scary to worry about my safety to and from school,” said Diajanae Mitchell, 14, an eighth-grader at nearby Dewey Elementary. “We all have to watch our backs, and we shouldn’t have to.”

Chicago police officers patrol the grounds of Englewood's Nicholson Technology Academy Elementary.

The cops on the route say all the things you’d expect. “When you’re a kid fearing for your life, it’s definitely a distraction from the task at hand: learning,” said officer Joe Slomka, who’s among the 110 new recruits who graduated from the police academy on Tuesday and were assigned to the Safe Passage beat Wednesday. “Hopefully with us here, it’s one less thing for students to worry about,” he added, putting on a superhero inflection.

But many parents didn’t hesitate to call bullshit on what they perceive as an expensive, overhyped program. “This ain’t gonna change nothing!” said Leena Rankins, 24, walking near Halsted and 60th Streets with her three-year-old preschooler, Dominique Crosby. “People be shooting all over, so putting up a Safe Passage sign isn’t going to solve nothing.” Sporting a shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Stop the Violence Now,” Leena said the environment in Englewood is so hostile she plans to move to the West Side, another crime-ridden pocket of Chicago, in the hope that she and her daughter will feel less threatened there.

Parents aren’t the only skeptics. Surprisingly, some Safe Passage employees freely admit they don’t believe the program can work and see it simply as temporary part-time employment. “It’s more of a show,” said Malika Black, 21, who stood on a corner along Garfield Boulevard looking bored. “This is not as effective as people think it might be. Standing here watching the kids go back and forth, we’re putting ourselves in danger and it’s not a guarantee that we can actually help. It’s not like we have weapons or anything.”

In lieu of Tasers or Mace, each worker is given a walkie-talkie and told to call a supervisor or police if they witness escalating violence or anything that might fall under the vague category of “suspicious activity.” Malika said that the previous day there was a fight outside nearby John Hope College Prep that several squad cars responded to, but overall things have been relatively quiet.

Across the street, 43-year-old Safe Passage worker Theo Bridges wasn’t so much patrolling his beat as pacing it. “Some of the kids are glad we’re out here, but if we weren’t, most of them wouldn’t care,” Theo said. “A lot of these kids, they’re kind of desensitized because they’ve seen so much violence go down around school and home—fights, gang activity, and shootings. It’s sad to say, but they just look at it as life.”

Police sirens whined in the distance. A mother with four kids in tow trudged along Halsted in an oversized “You Only Live Once (So Do It Up)” skirt-shirt. “It’s serious out here,” said the woman, who requested she not be identified. “As a parent, all you can do is believe in God and pray for your kids.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Board of Education flacks have been eager to deem the start of the 2013–14 school year a success, because after the first few days of class, no kids have been gunned down. It’s the bleakest of brags, but when it comes to the city's beleaguered schools, the bar for “success” tends to be set that low.

Safe Passage workers worry that week one is merely the calm before the storm, however, and Chicago Alderman Scott Waguespack pointed out on the first day of school that the program may not be sustainable for more than a few weeks; police and other city workers involved will eventually have to return to their regular posts. Other officials were thinking outside the box. Alderman George Cardenas advocated on Twitter for a potential alternative to the manned patrol: “Why not use drones in safe passage.??" [sic] Like the woman in the YOLO shirt said: pray for your kids.

Follow Jake on Twitter: @jakemalooley

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