PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday December 18th, 2013, 1:23pm

Is The CPS Safe Passage Program Keeping Students Safe?

Some parents and education activists say the Chicago Public Schools' expanded Safe Passage program that launched this year has been working well to keep students safe. But others argue that the program is simply a "roll of the dice" when it comes to young people's safety. 

It’s been about four months since the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) launched its expanded Safe Passage program in the wake of the largest single round of school closings in U.S. history.

On the one hand, some parents and education activists say the beefed up Safe Passage program, meant to keep students safe as they travel to and from new “welcoming schools” this year, has been working well. Others, however, say children impacted by recent school closings are still in harm’s way.

“No major incidents have popped up other than the usual kid stuff,” said Dwayne Truss, West Side activist and assistant director of the education coalition Raise Your Hand. “The big concern is pedophiles, kids being caught up in gang fights, stuff like that, and we haven’t had any major incidents. From my perspective, the program seems to be effective and working.”

But Jitu Brown, an education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said although no “catastrophes” have occurred during school hours on the new Safe Passage routes, that doesn’t mean children are not at risk.

"There are folks who are working very hard” to keep the students safe, he said. “I acknowledge that and respect that, but we know that there have been several incidents along these routes. We know that the climate inside of our schools has deteriorated, and we also know that you should not roll the dice with our young people’s safety.”

Progress Illinois talked with Brown and Truss prior to news that a 15 year-old girl was found beaten, bloody and half naked in a Belmont-Cragin backyard Tuesday morning in the 2400 block of North Long Avenue, which is not far from the designated Safe Passage route for Northwest Middle School, 5252 W Palmer St. According to media reports, the victim was sexually assaulted and was found shortly after 8 a.m. The teenager was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in serious condition, and no one is in custody as of Wednesday morning. Police say the teenager goes to a high school that is about six miles away and had been traveling to a bus stop at Long and Fullerton Avenues prior to the attack that occured at about 6 a.m., some 30 minutes before Safe Passage workers took to their posts on the street near Long Avenue. Safe Passage monitors apparently start at different times depending on the route, with most beginning at 7 a.m.

“I am very concerned, I want to know where the kid is from and how the family is doing,” Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) said of the attack that took place in his ward. “I'm especially concerned because it is a Safe Passage, that whole area is Safe Passage.”

In addition to this latest attack, an October ABC 7 News investigation found that nearly 100 incidents — ranging from drug deals to fights to fired gun shots — occurred along Safe Passage streets citywide during the first three weeks of school alone. CPS officials, however, told ABC 7 News at the time that no one had actually been shot or seriously hurt on a Safe Passage route during protected hours since school began.

Regardless of whether the incidents happened during protected hours or not, Brown said “putting children on a route where they basically need protected guards to make sure they’re safe itself is racist.”

“It’s irresponsible,” Brown continued. “Would Rahm Emanuel walk his children on a route where there’s a chance that something could happen to them?”

But neighborhoods without Safe Passage schools aren’t immune to violent crime either.

For example, crime data available on the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) Clear Map website showed that an aggravated battery with the use of personal weapons including “hands, fists, and feet” happened November 19 during school hours in the 4800 block of West Dickens Avenue in Chicago's Northwest Side Hermosa neighborhood. The crime occurred at about 2:40 p.m., close to when school was dismissed for the day, near Henry D. Lloyd Elementary, 2103 N Lamon Ave. The school does not have a Safe Passage route. 

Chicago Police Department News Affairs Officer Janel Sedevic said a male offender attacked a 30 year-old female victim on the street after what appeared to be an argument over a minor fender-bender. The woman suffered injuries to her face after being hit, Sedevic said. There is a person of interest in the case, the officer added, but he has not yet been arrested because police are still looking for him. CPD could not confirm whether or not the offender or victim were involved with the school in any way.

Meanwhile, parents at the West Side welcoming school Edward K. Ellington Elementary, at 243 N Parkside Ave., said they were pleased to see at least 10 Safe Passage workers on their posts this past Monday afternoon when classes ended.

Although violent crime is on the decline in some Chicago neighborhoods, Ellington parents explained that gun violence is still all too common in the Austin neighborhood. More recently, they noted that two men were shot over the weekend, including one fatally, at a building in the 300 block of North Central Avenue, which is part of the school’s Safe Passage route.

A closer look at crime in the area showed that there were 68 incidents, including murders, robberies, criminal sexual assaults and aggravated assaults and batteries, recorded within a half-mile radius of Ellington Elementary from September 11 through December 10, according to readily-available CPD crime data posted online as of Sunday evening through Tuesday morning.

Seventeen crimes occurred within the hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a school day. One incident, an armed robbery with a knife, took place on Ellington's Safe Passage route on September 13 at about 7:15 a.m. The crime, however, happened on the Green Line rail platform at Central Avenue and Lake Street, according to CPD data.

Chris Zolicoffer, who has two sons at Ellington, questioned whether Safe Passage workers would be able to provide students with the necessary security if a serious incident were to occur on the designated streets during protected hours.

“When the kids have a fight, (the Safe Passage workers) are not allowed to touch anybody,” Zolicoffer said. “They only can call the police, and about time they call somebody, it’s over with ... They’re just there to look, observe.”

Police Presence At Welcoming Schools

CPS pumped an additional $7.7 million into its Safe Passage program this year, doubling the number of route workers from 600 to 1,200. The recent move followed 50 neighborhood school closings, which the Chicago Board of Education approved in one fell swoop back in May. Of those 50 schools, 48 permanently shut their doors on the last day of school in June.

Fifty-three new Safe Passage routes were set up this year to cover the schools receiving students from those that closed. The program's expansion came in an effort to quell concerns from critics of the closings who said students from shuttered schools would have to journey through unsafe conditions and cross gang boundaries to get to their new building.

At the start of the school year, students traveling to unfamiliar schools were met with the newly-hired Safe Passage workers as well as additional supervision from police officers, firefighters, other city employees, community members and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who visited a Safe Passage route in Englewood. Parents at the time embraced the extra security, but some predicted that it would soon peter out.

Non-public safety workers, including building inspectors and Streets and Sanitation employees, who had been helping to monitor the routes were scaled back in late October. The overall police and firefighter presence has also pulled back a bit since the start of the school year. That adjustment came after CPS officials said in early October that only 60 percent of students from closed schools are attending their designated receiving schools, which is less than what the district original projected.

Ellington parents, however, said they still see about the same heavy police presence in the area as when school began. There were at least four police vehicles circling Ellington when classes let out on Monday.

Prior to this school year, men would often congregate on the corners near the school, explained Jasmine Dortch, who has two sons at Ellington.

“But now, since there’s so many police cars out here watching the kids, nobody’s really out here no more,” she said, adding that police also keep an eye on kids in the morning. “It’s a good thing. I like it like this. I won’t have it no other way.”

But unlike the situation at Ellington, parents and guardians at Oscar DePriest Elementary, another nearby Austin welcoming school at 139 S. Parkside Ave., said they have noticed the extra police presence decrease over the recent months, despite the school’s close proximity to the 15th District police station at 5701 W. Madison St.

"Every now and then you'll see one or two [police cars], or you might see none," said Lillie Carter, a grandparent of two DePriest students. "That’s exactly how it’s going."

Pat Lurks, a grandparent of a fifth grader who gets bused from DePriest to Suder Montessori Elementary Magnet School, added, "I don’t see a lot of police anymore, and I don’t see them even when I'm coming [to school]."

When asked after December’s city council meeting about the current state of the Safe Passage program, Emanuel said, "We do have city employees in key areas.”

“The police department and CPS regularly look at each of the routes, where they lie, how things are going, and so you will see city employees throughout," he said.

Safe Passage Workers Brave The Cold

After December's council meeting, the mayor also explained that he recently met with Safe Passage employees to remind them, especially now that it’s colder outside, how crucial their work is.

"It’s different when you do it in August or September given the conditions, but it's essential that they stay vigil, because they are a part, and they and the volunteers who are sitting on their front porch that we recruited ... of the eyes and ears in keeping our kids safe," Emanuel said. "They have done a really good job in partnership with all the other investments we’re making in after-school summer jobs, pre-k, safe havens and all the efforts to make sure even when the school bell’s out, our responsibility doesn’t end."

Safe Passage workers were posted along their routes at DePriest and Ellington Monday morning and afternoon despite the frigid temperatures. The Westside Health Authority is the Safe Passage vendor for the two schools, along with Robert Nathaniel Dett Elementary and George Leland Elementary. CPS lists a total of 18 community groups on its website that employ Safe Passage workers for 51 welcoming schools.

Although DePriest parents and grandparents said the program overall is a good idea, they did have some concerns about how it's specifically working at their school. They explained that the school's Safe Passage workers are not usually fanned out along the route, and instead, are almost always gathered at the busy intersection of Madison Street and Central Avenue.

The Safe Passage workers are "all bunched up together," said Tamika Williams, a parent of two DePriest students.

“They don’t stop traffic or help the kids walk across the street," she added.

Lurks echoed similar concerns, arguing that the program would have a bigger impact when it comes to minimizing crime in the neighborhood during school hours if the Safe Passage guards covered more of the designated route.

"They shouldn’t all be in the same spot. They should be down the streets some," said Lurks, who works as a substitute teacher in the Chicago public school district. "I see them all in the same spots. They're always like that everywhere you go ... I don’t see them in the middle of the blocks or anything. I see them all on the corners.”

Within a half-mile radius of DePriest, 16 violent crimes and robberies occurred from September 11 through December 10 during the hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a weekday, according to CPD crime data. Some of those incidents also appeared in Ellington’s half-mile radius as the two schools are located less than a mile from each other.

Three of the weekday crimes happened on, or very close to, DePriest's Safe Passage route during the hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. On October 3, an attempted armed robbery with a handgun occurred in a non-residential parking lot in the 5300 block of West Madison Street at about 3:15 p.m. On November 19, an aggravated battery with a dangerous weapon was recorded in the 100 block of South Central Avenue at about 8:35 a.m., although the incident happened at an apartment. And on December 4 at about 4 p.m., a strong-armed robbery took place on the sidewalk in the 0 block of North Long Avenue, which is immediately north of DePriest's Safe Passage stretch on Madison Street.

CPS budgeted the expanded Safe Passage program for a year, and it remains to be seen whether the cash-strapped school district will keep it going. Williams, the DePriest parent, said she'd rather see funds spent on other school resources and investments.

"You have some teachers in (DePriest) who say they don’t give out homework, because they don’t have enough copy paper," she said. "Spending money on this Safe Passage program that’s not even working, no one is really doing their job, that could have been (spent) in the schools on paper, books or whatever the teachers need to provide for the kids."

CPS did not respond to Progress Illinois’ questions concerning this story.

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