‘Nosy Neighbors’ Keeping Kids Safe on Daily School Commute

Two schools have been added to Chicago Public Schools' Safe Passage Program for the upcoming school year. (WBEZ / Flickr)

With thousands of Chicago Public Schools students prepping for their return to the classroom next month, community organizations across the city are working to make sure those students are able to travel safely to and from school each day.

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For the seventh year in a row, children and teens will be guided along their daily commute by Safe Passage workers – local residents hired out through community vendors by CPS to keep watch over students as they walk to school in the morning and back home in the afternoon.

“That coordination is unlike any I have seen in any other school district, and I have spoken with others,” CPS Chief of Safety and Security Jadine Chou said.

“It works well for us in Chicago because we do have these community-based neighborhoods where people know each other, and we capitalize on that, where people want to work with each other to make sure our children are safe. I think that relationship is special here, and it’s one we’re very proud of.”

The district says there will be approximately 1,200 workers hired into the program for the 2016-17 school year. Safe Passage routes will also be added to two new schools this year – the new Dyett High School on the city's South Side and Al Raby High School on the West Side – bringing its total to 140 schools and more than 75,000 students served districtwide.

Chou began her current role with CPS in 2011. Since then, the district has added more than 100 schools into the Safe Passage program.

“We actually started off with just one school, Kelly High School, over six years ago now, and it has created a significant impact and the violence has definitely decreased around the area,” said Mariela Estrada, director of organization for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, one of 22 community-based vendors involved in the Safe Passage program.

Estrada’s organization has since added service routes to a half-dozen additional schools around Brighton and Gage parks on the Southwest Side of the city.

Safe Passage worker guides children along a route near Fenger High School in 2013 on Chicago's South Side. (Chicago Tonight)

Each organization has its own hiring process, but Estrada said her group focuses on working with parents in the community who will be more invested in seeing their kids make it to and from school safely.

That investment paid off early on in 2011 when Estrada’s workers in Brighton Park were able to stop a sexual predator who had been following a student. The suspect was arrested and taken to trial, where Estrada said her workers were able to testify in court about what they saw.

“So that was one of our big successes,” she said. “Over the years we’ve been able to prevent incidents from escalating, especially when it has to do with gang issues.”

CPS claims there have been no major incidents involving students on Safe Passage routes during the program’s operational hours. If a dangerous situation does break out, Chou said workers are given instructions on varying levels of intervention.

“The whole idea in the training for the workers is behind being proactive,” she said. “We call it the ‘nosy neighbor,’ and if there are situations, for example if you see two young people who are getting into a little bit of a deep conversation, we train them on de-escalation so Safe Passage workers can intervene and try to de-escalate before it becomes a serious incident.”

Workers are also in contact with Chicago police, local school sergeants and the CPS student safety center in the event a criminal situation does break out.

“It works well for us in Chicago because we have these community-based neighborhoods where people know each other. I think that relationship is special, and it’s one we’re very proud of.”

–Jadine Chou, CPS

The district says it has budgeted nearly $18 million for the program this school year – a flat total from last year, but more than double the amount CPS devoted to Safe Passage just three years ago.

Anyone looking to get involved with Safe Passage must submit an application to their desired vendor and pass a CPS-administered background check. Those who are hired out work five hours a day – rain, shine or snow – five days a week, split between morning and afternoon shifts. They are paid $10 per hour.

For the 125-plus Safe Passage workers employed through the Alliance for Community Peace – a nonprofit, faith-based organization servicing nearly a dozen schools within the program across the city – a typical day begins around 6:30 a.m. After checking in at their respective schools to pick up their phone, neon vest, pen and paper, the workers spend the next two hours guiding kids on their morning trip before repeating that process in the afternoon.

“It’s been very positive – very, very positive,” said Rev. Walter Johnson, executive director of the Alliance for Community Peace. “One of the things that at some point in time CPS may talk about is the impact of the Safe Passage program … and the attendance in terms of students being able to attend schools with, I believe, some degree of safety.”

The district engages in ongoing discussions with principals and community members in determining where to add Safe Passage routes. Chou said CPS keeps a list of schools and looks to add additional routes where they believe the need is greatest based on factors including community dynamics, activity concerns and previous incidents.

For now, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council isn’t adding any more schools to its Safe Passage program – but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped looking to grow.

“I think it’s a great program,” Estrada said. “Hopefully it will get expanded. I know there are lots of principals who ask us on a regular basis if their schools can be included … there are definitely schools interested so we are definitely looking out for any additions to the program.”

Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @ByMattMasterson

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