Will 'Safe Passage' Routes Really Keep Chicago Kids Safe?

Officials from Chicago Public Schools hope new 'safe passage' routes will keep kids safe while walking to school. Nearly 50 schools closed recently, forcing thousands of students to attend schools farther away. Guest host Celeste Headlee finds out more about the routes, and what critics have to say.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll speak with one man who says beefing up the border security doesn't keep undocumented immigrants out. But it keeps them in. We'll hear that story in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to Chicago. The school year there begins in less than two weeks, and students from 47 elementary schools will go to new buildings this year. That's because the district decided to shut their old schools down. And many of those kids will be walking to school; sme of them, more than a mile. That means they'll pass through unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous territory.

The district does have a plan. It's spending millions of dollars to beef up its so-called Safe Passage Program that makes the walk safer for kids. Here to explain more about that is Linda Lutton. She's the education reporter from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Linda, welcome back to the program.

LINDA LUTTON: Thanks. Hi, thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: Linda, you've covered the schools in Chicago for a very, very long time; and you worked on a series for the public radio show "This American Life," that some listeners may have heard, where you spent a series of months embedded at a school on Chicago's South side. One of the big issues that both parents and kids mentioned often was walking to school. Why is walking to school in Chicago such a big deal?

LUTTON: Well, it's - in part due to the way gang lines are split up here. You know, we've have had a serious fracturing of our - the structure of our very large street gangs, which, you know, are - you know, go back decades, here in Chicago. And this fracturing has sort of left youth in a very difficult situation, in terms of navigating their neighborhoods. Many youth - as we talked about in "This American Life," Harper High School series - you mentioned two programs there - I mean, we detailed how in some neighborhoods, kids are really identified with the clique or the gang that controls their block, their couple of blocks. We certainly have situations in the city, and this is not universal, but it is true for kids, depending on which neighborhood they live in.

Kids who cannot go, you know, two blocks north or two blocks south without running into, sort of, rival gang territory. And that starts for kids often in, sort of, your middle school years. So in the city of Chicago, our elementary schools are kindergarten through eighth-grade schools, typically, and we do have, you know, seventh and eighth-grade students who will be going to different schools, crossing - potentially a lot of lines that they and their families have expressed, you know, fear over.

HEADLEE: And these are young kids. I mean, we're talking about age 10, 11, 12.

LUTTON: Right, yeah, there's sort of a separate safety issue for the younger kids. You know, many of the schools that were targeted for closure are located in our most economically distressed neighborhoods. These are, at times, neighborhoods that I think a lot of Americans would be astounded to see, frankly. They are - there are blocks on which we have, you know, every building boarded up except maybe for one or two homes left.

You've got vast, sort of, vacant land, vacant lots. Really, you know, there's times on particular blocks where you can think you're in a war zone, and that this whole place has been bombed out. So for younger kids, and you know, principally low income families living in these areas and affected by these school closures, you have younger kids, maybe 5, 6, 7, 8, who are used to getting to school on their own by walking there. And these - sort of just what this looks like, what the landscape of the neighborhoods looks like, you know, people believe it is a dangerous situation to put kids in.

HEADLEE: You know, let's talk about, kind of, the two entrenched sides, 'cause they really have become, really, opponents in a battle here. Many of the parents, many of the neighborhood advocates, say that closing these schools, especially, as you say, in these economically distressed areas, is going to change the entire fabric of life in these neighborhoods. Is that just because of what you're talking about, the danger for kids?

LUTTON: Well, I think, you know, Chicago is really a city of neighborhoods, and we are used to having a grammar school sort of nestled into the fabric of those neighborhoods. The way our school system has been structured has put a grammar school - a neighborhood grammar school that's open to all the kids in the neighborhood, very, you know, sort of, within walking distance to families. And what the closure of a total of 50 schools - we have a couple that are phasing out on a slower basis. But, you know, what the closure of a total of 50 schools does is really, in some areas, change that set-up.

So for the first time, you also have children crossing what are considered - what really are very, very busy thoroughfares, busy main streets, and that would not have happened in the past. I should say that the school district is offering bussing to some of the students who must cross or travel the greatest distances. But that bussing will not continue in the future for new students, you know, of these schools. This is only bussing that will service kids who actually, physically went to a closing school and are now, you know, going to a receiving school.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a plan to keep kids safe in Chicago while they walk to school. I'm speaking with education reporter Linda Lutton of WBEZ. So the district's response, in many ways, is this Safe Passage Program. Explain what it is and what it's intended to do.

LUTTON: Right. Safe passage is a program that's existed in Chicago since 2009. It's a program we started with federal stimulus money in that year. It was part of a broader attempt to address violence in a preventative sort of way in the district. It was part of our - what we called a Culture of Calm program, which has also gotten some national attention and people may have heard of. It was also a program - Safe Passage was a program that happened to begin right around the death of a boy named Derrion Albert. People may remember, his beating death was captured on cellphone video, and that video was played all over the nation.

HEADLEE: Yeah, it went viral.

LUTTON: Exactly. Attorney General Eric Holder came to town. So did Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, you know, who had recently, you know, left the city as the school CEO here. And violence is something this school district has struggled with. So this Safe Passage Program, what it does is, it puts community workers who wear very distinctive, fluorescent red vests - it puts them on street corners near the school. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The community workers wear green, not red, vests.] And they sort of fan out on different blocks around the school, in the direction that students walk home.

And they're meant to be eyes and ears. They are meant to be, you know, an adult presence. They are armed only with cellphones. I guess they have some preprogrammed telephone numbers. They work very closely with the principals and, you know, the idea being they can shift if, you know, they discover there's sort of a hotspot or a tense area. You know, they can go down the street. They can be moved, and they are there in the morning and they are there again at dismissal.

HEADLEE: Well, but, Linda, this is the program, as you say, that's existed since 2009. And Rahm Emanuel, and the school is actually - the schools is actually really expanding the program this year. They're involving the police, they're involving the fire department. What kind of methods are they using to beef up the program now?

LUTTON: Well, they are greatly expanding what's known as the Safe Passage Program. I mean, we're getting an additional 600 workers. I think that roughly doubles the number we have now. And currently, this program has been run around our high schools, and what's changing is, you know, most of the 50 schools that were closed were grammar schools. So those - these Safe Passage workers will now be stationed around grammar schools and will be providing a different sort of support. But you're right. The city is also - the mayor and the school system have made a very - have really emphasized the fact that the closing of these schools, and the transfer of these students to new - what the district's calling welcoming schools - is really a citywide, communitywide effort.

They have made - they've gone to great lengths to involve every city department, including - you mentioned police and fire, but also, you know, Departments of Streets and Sanitation, Department of Transportation. We're getting weekly media briefings here from all of those departments about, you know, just how many potholes were filled around welcoming schools or on these Safe Passage routes that students will be taking to school; how many vacant lots were mowed. We're getting those sorts of numbers, and that's - there's sort of a level of collaboration, I think, that is happening on a much more intensive basis than has happened in the past.

HEADLEE: Intensive and expensive, Linda.

LUTTON: Intensive and expensive, right. And it would be difficult to capture the full cost of this. But just the Safe Passage Program alone - the, you know, so those additional adult community workers with the green vests on - you know, just that program alone, we're doubling. The cost for that is now going to 16 million, roughly - just shy of 16 million for that aspect of it. So it is expensive.

You know, one of the things that a utilization commission determined here after looking at our situation, was that the city should and the school district should, quote-unquote, spend the money to do this right. If we were going to close 50 schools, we should spend the money to do a good job of this and that, I think, is what you're seeing.

HEADLEE: Well, we have about a minute left and I have to ask you are parents satisfied? Do they feel as though - I mean, school starts in a couple weeks - parents, do they feel safe?

LUTTON: I would say many parents do not feel safe. I think we're going to have to watch how this plays out, but I think, you know, the school district is running a little bit of a PR campaign for the public on the one hand. And I think they have a lot of work left to do when it comes to actually talking to parents and convincing parents who understand the gang lines - the invisible gang lines in their neighborhoods and are very afraid for their children.

HEADLEE: Understandably. Linda Lutton, the education reporter for WBEZ in Chicago and she joined us from their studios there. Thank you so much, Linda.

LUTTON: Thank you.

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