Chicago officials delivered safe passage along routes to 90 city schools for students on opening day of the nation’s third largest school system Monday. The schools are being closely watched after 50 were closed earlier this year, prompting fears that some students could be in danger by attending new schools in neighborhoods where they might encounter rival gangs.
Under the city’s Safe Passage program, 1,200 unarmed workers wearing neon vests stand watch as students pass by. They make $10 an hour, with many of them holding other jobs, such as firefighters. The cost of the program this year nearly doubled to $15.7 million, as city officials are eager to make a good showing at the start of school, after such a turbulent last few months.
To spruce up the routes where students walk, city employees demolished 41 vacant buildings, trimmed 4,900 trees, removed 2,800 instances of graffiti and fixed hundreds of streetlights, according to the New York Times.
“The ultimate goal of all efforts — both in the building, on the way to the building and at home — is so kids will think about their studies, not their safety,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who spent part of the morning along Safe Passage routes around the city. “The city is diverse. This isn’t everywhere. But it does address certain parts of the city and certain communities so every child has a level playing field.”
While Chicago has been quick to point to the improvement in violence statistics—266 people have been killed thus far this year, a decrease of 26 percent from last year—the high-profile, shocking murders and shootings continue.
Overnight on Sunday at least six people were reported shot, including an 11-year-old girl sitting with her family on the porch of her Northwest-Side apartment building and a 14-year-old boy killed while standing with a group on the city’s West Side.
The 11-year-old, Cindy Leon, was sitting on her porch at around 4 a.m. when a shooter who officials say might have been female opened fire five times, hitting the girl in the back and side. Leon suffered “through-and-through” wounds and was taken to Lurie Children’s Hospital, where she was last listed in stable condition, police said.
“She’s scared,” said her stepfather Santiago Galvez. “It’s never happened in our family, it is crazy.”
Safety is a big concern of school officials and parents who were taking their children to school on the first day.
“I hope they’ll be safe and I want them to be safe, but I don’t know if this is enough,” said Inez Jackson, who said her third-grade daughter cried when her school, Songhai Elementary Learning Institute, was closed.
According to city officials, crime has dropped by 20 percent on the Safe Passage routes over the last two years, while school attendance improved. There were no incidents yesterday along the city’s 92 Safe Passage routes.
But some parents still weren’t pleased.
“It’s still really too dangerous,” said Larissa Henderson as she walked her 4-year-old son, Adrian Wright, to his first day of kindergarten. They were headed to Curtis Elementary School, which some neighborhood residents said had a long history of tension and fighting with the school that closed, Songhai.
“I don’t know if my baby has a chance out here,” Henderson said, saying Adrian had witnessed a shooting on a street nearby a few months ago.
Harold Davis, the director of an agency that hired 14 Safe Passage workers to stand on the blocks near Curtis Elementary, said families from both schools were meeting, trying to work out old disputes.
“This is the kind of place where you once had adults telling the kids not to play with each other,” Davis said. “This community has to heal.”