Chicago held its breath on Monday, August 25. It was the first day of the school year for a school system that had undergone tumultuous changes during the summer. Nearly 50 public schools had permanently shut their doors in the largest round of school closures ever undertaken by an American city. The closures displaced over 12,700 students, who were to be assigned to other schools. However, these closures have wrought unintended consequences for these students, including fears for their safety.
The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system has felt significant strains in recent years. It faces a looming billion-dollar deficit, and has been weakened by reductions in student enrollment as well as a teacher’s union strike last autumn.
In the midst of his first term, Mayor Rahm Emanuel targeted public education and its monetary woes as a focus for his administration. On February 29 of this year, CPS released a list of 129 public schools that would face closure. The criteria for closure was determined the Emanuel administration, and included test scores and attendance levels.
The backlash was swift; families in Chicago’s South and West sides were outraged that the closures would overwhelmingly affect their neighborhoods, in contrast to the more affluent north side. CPS enrolls 403,000 students, and 87% of them come from low-income households. The families saw the closures as kicking those communities that were already hurting the most.
On May 23 the Chicago Board of Education voted 4-2 to shutter 49 schools. The board’s actions came as little surprise, because the mayor appoints the board’s six members. However, the losses were still a blow to a school system that still reeled from years of instability. The debate over the students’ educational future has been ongoing and impassioned, but when the closures were announced, parents, educators and communities fretted over a more immediate threat.
“I can’t imagine having to live with that hanging over your head,” a police officer from the 19th District told me when I asked her about students in high-crime areas. “When you’re in their shoes, you’ve got to dodge bullets while just trying to get to school.”
Unfortunately, in recent years Chicago has become infamous for its annual body count; there were 500+ murders in 2012 alone. Though the debate on the root causes of the violence is ongoing, many agree that the splintering of Chicago’s gangs into smaller factions with smaller amounts of territory to contest has contributed to the uptick in murders. As senior gang leaders have been imprisoned, the larger gangs have been fragmented and the ensuing confusion has increased the violence. Now, by crossing the street teenagers may inadvertently cross a border into ‘enemy’ territory.
Therefore, a longer walk for displaced students on unfamiliar streets to a new school could possibly be dangerous. Rivalries can develop based upon where you live, who you hang out with, and what school you attend, or attended before it was closed. A gang could interpret the path a student takes to school as an affront. Even social media was unerringly abuzz in the weeks before classes began, with rival gangs taunting and threatening each other via Facebook and message boards.
The mayor responded to these fears by expanding the CPS “Safe Passage” program. The city plotted routes that children could take to their new schools that would be supervised by police officers and other city employees. Emanuel hoped to maximize the number of eyes watching over students who were going to school by mandating the route that students would take to school.
“[Safe Passage] is about building a route to college, career and beyond, so that once our kids get to school, they get the world-class education they deserve,” Mayor Emanuel said at a training session for the 3,000 additional Safe Passage employees which would be needed to cover the new routes.
Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy echoed his superior, and called Safe Passage “true community policing.” McCarthy said many of the new employees were residents of the neighborhoods in which they were stationed, and some were parents of CPS children.
I spoke to several officers a week after the expanded program had kicked off.
“There hasn’t been much noise on the routes so far,” one officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “Everybody is starting to know each other’s faces. It’s different for the kids to have so many police and people watching over them.”
“The parents like that we’re here,” she said. “It makes them feel like their kids are safer.”
In the late afternoon of August 19, the Uptown Baptist Church on Wilson Avenue opened its doors to the homeless for a prayer service and free meal as it does every Monday. Nearly 200 ambled into the chapel while volunteers prepared the food.
Witnesses did not recall any warning before the gunfire, but within moments the street had erupted in chaos. One eyewitness said that one of the gunmen fired as many as 20 rounds toward the church. Five immediately fell to the pavement. Within a few days, one of them would be dead. Even in a neighborhood that’s suffered from gang violence through the years, the brazenness was particularly noteworthy.
This particular shooting was additionally disturbing, for the corner of Wilson and Sheridan — the site of the Church shooting — is on a CPS Safe Passage route. A week after the shooting, children would be walking to and from school on the same pavement where the victims fell.
In its first week, Safe Passage has a successful track record. There have been no shootings on the routes while officers or Safe Passage employees were on post. However, Safe Passage streets have been the sites of nearly 150 shootings and 38 murders to date this year.
Only 12 hours before the first day of school, a man was shot in the 1400 block of North Tripp Avenue — a Safe Passage route for Charles Evans Hughes Elementary School. On September 2, a man was shot in the chest across the street from the Dulles School of Excellence and its Safe Passage route.
According to Michael Allen, the pastor of Uptown Baptist Church, the corner where the August 19 shooting took place is the border for three rival gangs. All of these factors make safety in these areas difficult for the city to guarantee.
There’s been little discussion about Safe Passage’s longevity. The cost of the program is $15.7 million dollars, and increasing the fund is unlikely for a city already in dire financial straits. Additionally, there’s been an significant turnover rate among new Safe Passage hires, which has led to unsupervised street corners during the required times.
The Roseland neighborhood, for example, saw half its Safe Passage recruits quit within the first week of the school year. Because of the high turnover rate and the scale of the program, CPS and Mayor Emanuel have had to rely on other city employees to plug the holes. An officer I spoke with said that the city personnel filling the ranks included firefighters, administrative staff and sanitation workers, in addition to police officers.
“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen for sure. We just know it’s not sustainable the way it’s going,” he said. “We’ve got people from all different departments out here to fill up all the ranks. These people are going to have to go back to their jobs at some point.”
Safe Passage was scheduled to operate at its current capacity for three weeks into the school year, at which point it would be re-analyzed on a weekly basis. Parents and community members are concerned that the heavy presence on these routes will remain only as long as the press attention does, but the police and City Hall say they are committed to the program as long as is necessary.
Whether you had a child enrolled in a CPS school or not, the controversy surrounding the closures has been inescapable. However, the controversy has been matched by frustration that the city needs Safe Passage. I’ve seen some express anger about the new normal for its students. The most sobering possibility would not be that Safe Passage is wasteful, inefficient and short-sighted (though it has been called all of these things), but that it’s actually the best option CPS students have.
Right now, a headline about violence breaking out during Safe Passage hours on a designated route feels inevitable, but even if that headline doesn’t happen, it’s disheartening to think that CPS students must view their education — and the walk to reach it — in such a fashion. Their way to school is now a map with safe zones and trouble areas, accompanied by a realization that the alternative could be worse.
“It’s the people shooting that are the problem,” one officer told me “They’re still going to be here, even when we’re gone.”