CHICAGO – Chicago children will walk past even more guards on their first day of school than last year, when concerns about safety prompted the city to line the streets with 1,200 adults every day.
Thanks to an infusion of $1 million from the city, another 100 "Safe Passage" workers will be on routes that students walk through crime-ridden neighborhoods to get to school when classes resume on Tuesday. And after Gov. Pat Quinn pledged $10 million, officials said another 600 of the workers would be hired and on the streets over the next several weeks.
When they're all in place, said Jadine Chou, the chief safety and security officer for the Chicago Public Schools, more workers will be assigned along existing routes and some routes will be extended farther from schools. The district has added 27 schools to the 93 for which there will be Safe Passage workers.
There is far less publicity about the first day of school than a year ago, when the closure of some 50 schools by Mayor Rahm Emanuel had parents and others worried that forcing children to walk through unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhoods to new schools would put them at greater risk of crossing gang boundaries and being caught in gang conflicts.
But the worst fears of violence against children walking to school never came to pass.
"It didn't happen, to the glory of God, and I think there were very few if anything happened to children on their way to and from school," said Bishop Larry Trotter of the Sweet Holy Spirit Church on the city's South Side, one of several pastors who had urged Emanuel to reconsider the closings. "The mayor and his team did a wonderful job."
Chou said not one student was seriously injured along a Safe Passage route during the hours that the guards were on duty last school year.
Since school ended in the spring, the city has witnessed spasms of violence such as one over the July 4 weekend that left 14 dead and dozens injured. In one tragic incident, an 11-year-old girl inside a house at a slumber party was killed when a bullet fired outside at someone else pierced a wall and struck her in the head.
Some worry that the city is not doing enough to keep students from harm, particularly high school students who are going to and from school for extracurricular activities before or after the Safe Passage workers are on duty.
Last December, a 15-year-old girl who left her home before dawn to get to a school on the city's North Side was beaten and raped less than a half block from a Safe Passage route.
"She had to get to school earlier than the Safe Passage (workers) were on duty," said state Rep. LaShawn Ford, who noted that Safe Passage workers on not on the street at 6 a.m. Ford has pushed for the hours of the guards to be expanded this year. Guards start less than an hour before classes begin and stay up to an hour after school ends, according to Chicago Public Schools.
There's also a political risk for Emanuel, who's up for re-election next year. His most-talked-about potential rival, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, has criticized Emanuel for closing neighborhood schools and dubbed him the "murder mayor" because of the city's violence.
Any violence that occurs on a student's walk to and from school could become fodder for Lewis — or any other opponent — to use against Emanuel, whose popularity has fallen over the last year.