CHICAGO, IL – On the second day of school last week, Susana Salgado and Octavio Barajas walked their 8-year-old son from James Otis Elementary along the new Safe Passage route in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood.
Though there were many police cars, Safe Passage workers in bright vests, and even a fire truck placed throughout the several blocks of the route, Salgado felt that the kids weren’t safe because some of the crossing guards weren’t paying attention. “They gave the job to 600 people,” she says. “They’re so worried about money, but they’re giving money away.”
As a result of recent budget cuts, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) started off the year with 47 fewer elementary schools, leaving many parents worried about their children’s safety. Two more schools and a high school program are scheduled to close later this year. The measures affect 12,700 students.
A recent analysis of Chicago crime data by WBEZ-FM also found that in 2013, there have been 133 shootings and 38 homicides in and around areas that have been newly marked as Safe Passage routes.
In response to safety concerns, police worked with residents and CPS to map out routes near 52 of the “welcoming schools” that are taking in students from the closed schools. The city has put up bright yellow “Safe Passage” signs along those routes.
Salgado feels the route isn’t the right solution to safety concerns. “I don’t think this will make much of a difference,” she says. “There’s a worker who is just standing there and not taking care of the children. She’s not even helping them cross the street.”
Some parents, however, are pleased with the the change. Rosa Jimenez, whose nine and 10-year-old attend James Otis Elementary, is happy about the new program. “I feel safe. There was nothing like this last year,” Jimenez says, though she admits that she would never let her children walk home alone and will be escorting her children from school every day.
CPS initially launched the Safe Passage Program in 2009 to help improve safety for students traveling to and from school. It currently serves 35 high schools and 51 elementary schools. According to CPS, all safe passage workers must go through a comprehensive training program that helps them learn how to effectively man their post so they can safely support children in the best possible manner. The training includes how to build relationships, anticipate issues before they occur, and proper protocols for de-escalating situations.
Matt Smith, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services says his department has mostly received positive responses to the Safe Passage program so far. “Parents appreciate having us out there. If there are any complaints, we address them,” he says.
Smith says that several departments are working collaboratively to ensure the Safe Passage program goes smoothly. On the first day of school, for instance, he says that a worker noticed graffiti along the route and the Department of Streets and Sanitation arrived within a half hour to paint over it. “This is a living, breathing, growing effort,” he says. “We’ll see if it needs to be changed in any way. We’re out there as long as necessary.”
Not only does the program help keep kids safe, Smith believes it also offers parents, students, and workers a sense of community. “There’s a sense of belonging that I think is being reinstilled,” he says.
Harold Davis, director of American Enterprises, one of the vendors for the Safe Passage program, says that he and his team prepared for the start of the school year for several weeks. During the weekly meetings they met with educators and parents from the different schools. “We had to break the ice,” he says. “People who were enemies for generations have something in common now. Now for the first time in 25 years, they have to speak to each other. This is a positive thing to do because these communities needed to be healed,” he says.
Though there were many positive responses to the program during the first week, sanitation workers discovered the body of a man inside a garbage can about a half-block from one of the South Side’s Safe Passage routes on the first day of school.
“We’re a large city and were going to have shootings throughout the city. You’re looking at miles of routes,” says Tony Ruiz, Deputy Chief for School Safety and Security in response to the data. “We can put Safe Passage Routes in Cincinnati, Ohio and you’re going to get the same thing.”
According to Ruiz, the program will continue for the entire school year and will be reassessed the following year. “We as a city have really been taking this program to a higher level,” he says.
Erika L. Sánchez is a writer, columnist and poet living in Chicago. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and the 2013 “Discovery”/Boston Review poetry prize.