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Chicago Public Schools Safety Program's Working, But For How Long?


In Chicago, the mayor and school officials say that they're making good on a promise to keep students safe after closing nearly 50 schools. Parents worried about children having to cross rival gang territory to attend new schools. But now, two and a half months into the school year, the district says its program, Safe Passage, is living up to its name.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: More than an hour before school starts at Mollison Elementary on Chicago's South Side, the monitors assigned to watch for trouble have put on their neon vests and lined up along the route marked by bright yellow Safe Passage signs. Police patrols and Safe Passage workers are a familiar sight now for parents walking their kids to school but the workers don't impress Ashley Brock, whose son is in first grade.

ASHLEY BROCK: They don't really do nothing, 'cause there's something happened down here weeks ago and none of them knew but they stand on the corner watching all day.

CORLEY: But many more parents this day, like Sasha Allen(ph), say it's great to have Safe Passage workers here, as well as in other areas of the city where gun violence has been rampant.

SASHA ALLEN: It makes you comfortable. You know what I mean? You don't feel like, oh, my God, let's get from up here before they shoot. You know what I mean? It's more of a comfortable thing.

CORLEY: Safe Passage began four years ago after a high school student was beaten to death during a brawl. Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, hired 600 workers to keep watch on certain streets as students travel to or from school. While violent crime in Chicago is on the decline, in some neighborhoods, gun violence is relentless. So when CPS closed down nearly 50 schools this summer, angry parents said their children would be at risk as they cross gang boundaries. In response, the school system hired another 600 Safe Passage workers.

JADINE CHOU: I'm happy to say that the school year so far, we haven't had a single serious incident where a child has been hurt.

CORLEY: Jadine Chou, the chief safety officer for CPS, says the 61 incidents reported during the first month of school were mostly minor, like low-level squabbles. Plus, she says, what's important is just having eyes on the street.

CHOU: We have had situations where our Safe Passage workers have been able to prevent incidents. They've been able to intervene based on intelligence that they received from either community members or from students and we were able to get the appropriate authorities involved.

CORLEY: Like when one Safe Passage worker on the Mollison route reported being shot at. Chou said they worked with the police to understand what appeared to be a domestic situation.

Jitu Brown, the education organizer for a community group near the school, the Kenwood Oakland Organization, says he has no doubt that CPS wants students to be safe but he doesn't think much of Safe Passage.

JITU BROWN: This is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

CORLEY: Brown says closing schools, moving kids out of their immediate neighborhoods and then hiring monitors is just wrongheaded. In fact, many families didn't send their students to newly assigned schools.

BROWN: The way you make young people safe is you help to build stable communities. We know that there's been confrontations between gang members and young people walking to and from these routes. Why? Because they're in communities or neighborhoods where they're not familiar.

CORLEY: And Brown says for all the city's push for Safe Passage, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pulled back on the number of city workers assigned to also keep watch on the routes. The city says it has adjusted staffing. Regardless, Emanuel says Safe Passage is working.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: And they're on top of it every day, 24/7, and make sure that our kids are safe.

CORLEY: But CPS is strapped for cash and there are questions whether Safe Passage will be able to continue. Safety chief Chou says although nothing is promised, the district feels good about the future of a program designed to keep Chicago students safe. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.