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Chicago School Closures Send Kids Through Dangerous Areas


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. The start of the school year in Chicago on Monday comes with extra challenges. Fifty of the city's schools were closed over the summer, leading parents to worry that students would have to walk through neighborhoods where gun violence has been rampant. So the district made a promise it would provide safe routes to schools using an expanded version of a program call Safe Passage. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: About 200 people filled the seats of one side of a cavernous auditorium at Chicago State University. They're among the new hires that will stand watch on Chicago streets. And they listen intently as Chicago public school safety manager Willie Sims runs down a list of do's and don'ts they need to know.

WILLIE SIMS: When you out on post, try to get to know parents. Try to get to know the business owners where you're posted. Communicate with them.

CORLEY: After the briefing, Passionne Watson(ph) said she learned what to do if a fight or shooting occurs on her watch.

PASSIONNE WATSON: Depending on the situation, you might have to call the police first. But if the incident hasn't occurred yet, you will call your base operator and they can alert the security at the school and administrators.

CORLEY: Passionne's relatives, Cory Mitchell and Tamica Watson, say they learned not to intervene if there's trouble.

TAMICA WATSON: Oh no, I know. I'm gonna get low to the ground.


T. WATSON: Get low.

CORLEY: The Chicago public schools, or CPS, started a Safe Passage program four years ago putting workers on certain streets to keep watch after a high school student was beaten to death during a brawl. Since CPS closed so many schools during the summer, there has been plenty of worry about kids having to cross rival gang territories to attend new schools. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says, in addition to trying to control violence, city agencies are cleaning, making repairs and making their presence known.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: Trees trimmed, lots cleaned, buildings boarded up and torn down, lights replaced.

CORLEY: There are bright yellow Safe Passage signs on several streets near Wilson and Broadway on Chicago's north side. That's where five people were shot earlier this week during a drive-by.

GREG HARRIS: I heard the sirens the other night and just with everyone else in the community was heartbroken at what happened here on this corner.

CORLEY: Illinois State Representative Greg Harris was attending a vigil for the shooting victims. About 30 people showed up. Pastor Timothy Williams says the community is uneasy.

TIMOTHY WILLIAMS: Well, yeah, anybody's fearful when you know somebody's out shooting and he's shooting at a lot of people. But I'm not guided by fear.

CORLEY: Standing next to his father, Williams' six-year-old son, Malachi, was just eager to go back to school.

MALACHI WILLIAMS: Yeah, I'm excited but as long as I stay calm I'm gonna do good.

CORLEY: Eleven-year-old Jonathan Riviera, who's about to enter the sixth grade, stood next to a Safe Passage sign with his mother and older brother. He said news about the shooting made him feel...


CORLEY: It makes you feel unsafe?

RIVIERA: Uncomfortable.

CORLEY: The head of the Chicago schools, Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, points out the shooting on Chicago's north side did not happen during school hours.

BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT: But the most important thing is that Safe Passage is during the time that children come to school and leave school. That doesn't minimize my sympathy for any child or any person that's hurt on a particular street but Safe Passage is slightly different and it's comprehensive.

CORLEY: The safety workers are called the frontline of that strategy and more than 1,000 showed up for a rally wearing bright yellow vests with words Community Watch emblazoned on the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you fired up? Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?

CORLEY: When Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy stepped forward, he told the crowd they won't be alone. He says officers recruited help in neighborhoods.

GARRY MCCARTHY: And they've identified more than 2,500 civilians, residents who live on those blocks who are going to volunteer their own time to sit on their porches, to put a chair out in front of their building, to be out there to support our children.

CORLEY: Even if the first day of school goes smoothly, as Chicago officials hope, there will still be some controversy. Some activists have called for students to boycott classes on Wednesday to protest the city's massive school closings. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.