Chicago's back-to-school season comes with gang protections for kids

Tue Sep 8, 2015 3:54pm EDT
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By Fiona Ortiz

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Teachers are being laid off as the Chicago Public Schools district deals with a massive financial crisis.

But in one area the fourth-largest U.S. public school system is not cutting corners: the $17.8 million annual budget for safety patrols that watch over children walking to school through neighborhoods plagued by gang violence.

The school district has expanded the six-year-old Safe Passage program to seven additional schools this year, bringing it to a total of 140 of Chicago's 660 public schools.

With 304 murders so far this year, up 18 percent from the same period last year, and 1,588 shooting incidents, up 17 percent, Chicago is one of the most dangerous big cities in the United States. Most of the homicides and shootings are blamed on rival gangs.

On the first day of school on Tuesday outside Sherwood Elementary School, in the Englewood neighborhood, 10 workers wearing reflective vests stood at nearby corners and escorted children.

"It's good to see the vests out here, it makes the kids feel more comfortable going to school," said Quierra Hardy as she dropped off her two children at Sherwood. "As far as gangs, it might make them think twice when they see so many witnesses out here."

Englewood has had 15 homicides in the past 365 days, according to city data, and is one of the five Chicago neighborhoods with the most reports of violent crime.

Safe Passage was launched in 2009 with 35 schools, and expanded significantly in 2013 after 50 Chicago public schools were shut down. The closures forced many children to traverse gang territory as they commuted to newly assigned schools.   Continued...

A woman walks children to Sherwood Elementary School along the Safe Passage route in the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois, United States, September 8, 2015. TREUTERS/Jim Young