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When Schools Close and Force Kids to Walk Through Gang Territory, This Is What Can Happen

Even with so-called Safe Passage routes, critics still question how safe students really are.

When Chicago Public Schools began the new school year in August, it did so amidst a changed landscape. In a controversial move, the system closed 50 public schools in largely Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods in an effort to cut costs. The move forced 13,000 students into new schools, many of whom would have to cross areas known for gang activity and violence.

In response, CPS hired 1,200 individuals to monitor expanded Safe Passage routes to make sure students arrive safely at school. The Safe Passage program began in 2009 after the beating death of a high school student and has been used since then for high schools. Last year, four elementary schools were added to the program. This year, several more routes were added in the areas affected by the school closings. These monitors are deployed starting at 6:30 a.m. and during after school hours. Large yellow signs are placed above the sidewalks along the routes to provide sanctuary for students.

Critics question how safe students really are, though.

On Tuesday, December 17, a 15-year-old Chicago girl left her home around 6:00 a.m. to head down the block to the bus stop to attend her charter school six miles away. Two hours later, her mother received a call from her father saying their daughter never made it to school. Her mother noticed the police down the street and went to ask what was going on. Her daughter had been found in a neighbor’s back yard, lying in a pool of blood after having been beaten and raped.

Police believe she was attacked shortly after she left home, dragged to the neighbor’s back yard, where she was hit in the head and raped. She had severe head injuries and there was a great deal of blood. It is estimated she had been lying in the cold for almost two hours when the owner of the home found her in his backyard. He had heard nothing prior to finding her.

The attack happened just a half block from a Safe Passage route.

At the beginning of the school year, many of the new Safe Passage routes were already plagued by shootings in the weeks and days before the new school year started. At the time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged that they would have to be more vigilant. The district pointed out that these shootings did not occur during school hours.

Except that one time it did.

In October, a Safe Passage worker was monitoring a route for an elementary school when a gunman opened fire. She was the apparent target as the shooting was an apparent domestic dispute involving her estranged husband. There were no students or residents around at the time and the worker was unharmed. She was removed from the route as a precaution.

Nevertheless, CPS claims that there has been a 20 percent decline in criminal incidences around Safe Passage schools, and a decline in incidences involving students. Furthermore, they claim an increase in attendance for high school students in the past two years. When the new routes were added, Chicago police department Superintendent Garry McCarthy pointed out that helping students cross dangerous territory was not a new concept and that they were more than ready to handle the extra patrols.

That is, when they are there.

Two days after the 15 year-old-girl was attacked, residents of the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood held an emergency meeting. More than a hundred residents showed up to complain about the crime in the neighborhood and demanded more police presence. They pointed out that many of the high school students need to leave as early as 5:45 a.m. to catch the bus in order to get to school on time. The Safe Passage patrols do not start until 6:45 a.m. for the fourteen monitors assigned to that route, which is in place for the middle school.

The girl was attacked before 6:30 a.m. The honor student is currently in a medically induced coma in the hospital and is unable to speak. Police are still investigating and searching for suspects. In the meantime, they have increased patrols in the neighborhood.

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