Politics

Is Safe Passage Safe from Budget Cuts?

Despite successes, patchwork funding leaves a CPS program’s future uncertain

Ellen Hao

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in 2013 the closing of nearly fifty Chicago public schools, he attempted to address the concerns regarding student safety by calling for the expansion of the Safe Passage program. First launched in 2009, Safe Passage is a combination of programs that harnessed community involvement to ensure the safety of students traveling to and from school. The program enacts stronger punishments for the possession of guns, ammunition, and other dangerous weapons in designated Safe Passage routes and school safety zones. These routes linked closed schools and the “welcoming” schools that students were redirected into in 2013; the school safety zones cover 1,000 feet around any school and public park within the area.

However, in the eight years since Safe Passage’s birth, and the nearly four years since the 2013 closings, there are lingering concerns about the program’s effectiveness, stability, and payment of its workers. 

The program was founded after Derrion Albert, a sixteen-year-old student, was beaten to death while walking home from Fenger Academy High School in Roseland. After Albert’s death, former Attorney General Eric Holder and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to Chicago to address the issue of violence around schools, and the Safe Passage program began with the help of federal stimulus money. The initial program focused its efforts on training around six hundred Safe Passage workers, who would line each route while wearing distinctive neon green vests. When the program was expanded in 2013 in response to the closings, the program also called for demolishing nearby vacant buildings, trimming trees, removing graffiti, and repairing streetlights that lay along Safe Passage routes.

Initially, some questioned whether the heavy adult and police presence near the schools would be healthy for the students or whether the program would only relocate the violence instead of alleviating it. According to a 2013 press release by CPS, the Safe Passage program has led to a twenty percent decline in crime around schools protected by the Safe Passage program, a twenty-seven percent decline in incidents among students, and a seven percent increase in attendance from 2011-2013 in high schools with the Safe Passage program—markers of success certainly, but not necessarily addressing those initial concerns. The program also was not cheap, even in 2013—an additional $7.7 million in investment after the school closings brought the total cost to $16 million a year; in comparison, CPS predicted that the schools closings would save around $43 million a year in operating costs, though some have challenged this claim.

In 2014, the program was expanded again after a $10 million bonus from the state of Illinois, which allowed the program to serve another twenty-seven schools, hire six hundred more Safe Passage workers (for a total of 1,900), and implement forty new Safe Passage routes (for a total of 133). And in September of 2016, CPS added two more Safe Passage routes around Dyett School of the Arts and Al Raby High School. The Safe Passage program now supports 142 schools and 75,000 students.

Safe Passage vendors, which are community organizations (such as the Ark of St. Sabina and Teamwork Englewood) that are responsible for the on-the-ground enforcement of Safe Passage routes, are also tasked with the hiring of the Safe Passage workers. Safe Passage workers are mostly members of the neighborhoods in which they serve, stand along routes in order to ensure the students’ safety, and, if needed, de-escalate conflicts that may occur. After being trained and armed with their cellphones, Safe Passage workers work five hours a day (often split into some hours in the morning and some in the afternoon), five days a week, and are paid $10.50 an hour.

The Safe Passage program has seen issues in worker turnover, even during its first week in 2009. According to CBS Chicago, half of Roseland’s Safe Passage workers quit in the first week, leaving a route completely unmanned on 119th and State Street the next Tuesday morning. According to Bob Jackson, the supervisor of Nehemiah Roseland Ceasefire (a Safe Passage vendor), the organization lost thirteen out of its twenty-six members the second day of the school year. While Jackson attributed the high turnover to the hot weather, other supervisors said that many of the workers also found full-time, and better-paying, work elsewhere.

Even this school year, school officials from Shoesmith Elementary complained late last November that the school had not had Safe Passage workers since early the 2014-2015 school year, when they had three workers on duty, according to the Hyde Park Herald. At the meeting, CPS representative Gregory Sain said that the district plans to reinstate the program by December 2016 with workers from the Leave No Veteran Behind organization, whose members also work in Kenwood Academy High School’s Safe Passage program. According to a spokesperson from CPS, the program has since been restored.

The district is still working out some other kinks as well, such as worker compensation. On July 1, 2016, the city of Chicago raised its minimum wage to $10.50 an hour, and plans to continue raising the minimum wage for the next two years. This July, the minimum wage for non-tipped employees will be $11, and $13 by the end of 2019. However, in the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Chicago Public Schools did not provide the same fifty-cent raise for its Safe Passage workers. Attributing the non-raise to the district’s budget problems and claiming that Safe Passage workers were exempt from city-wide raises, the district was plagued with numerous wage complaints and accusations of unreliable minimum wage enforcement. According to the Chicago Reporter, city officials included within the minimum wage ordinance certain exceptions in state laws that allowed for “certain younger workers…other teens under nineteen, and student workers at public colleges and universities; disabled workers, workers in transitional employment programs, such as those for the homeless and former-inmates; new employees in their first ninety days on the job; workers for certain small businesses and other groups” to be excluded from the minimum wage increase.

However, according to the Chicago Reporter, once the publication began questioning CPS’s decision to not pay Safe Passage workers minimum wage, CPS claimed that “it would cover the wage increase, as well as back pay, to its crossing guards.” A spokesperson from CPS confirmed to the Weekly that Safe Passage workers were notified of the wage increase to $10.50 an hour on January 25 of this year, and that the district would continue to increase workers’ wages in step with the city’s minimum wage increases.

Samekh Masden, the Safe Passage/Assistant Program Coordinator and Human Resources Director at Black United Fund Illinois (a Safe Passage vendor), says that their Safe Passage workers are now being paid the minimum $10.50 an hour, and are also receiving back pay compensation for the wages that they weren’t being given while being excluded in the city-wide raise. While a fifty-cent wage increase may seem small, it adds up in the long run—fifty extra dollars per month means a lot to Safe Passage workers striving for better wages.

The Safe Passage program continues to garner widespread support from political leaders, CPS officials, and community organizations. CPS’s 2017 fiscal year budget reported that over the past five fiscal years “there have been no major incidents involving students on Safe Passage routes during the program’s operational hours.” Accordingly, the 2017 budget further provided for twenty-two community-based vendors to hire 1,200 workers for the 2016-2017 school year.

Still, it is worth questioning how CPS will continue to guarantee steady increases in minimum wage for the expanding number of Safe Passage workers when it continues to be riddled with budgetary issues—the most pressing of which threatens to close all CPS schools three weeks early this year. Another federal stimulus or state “bonus” is unlikely to come. If CPS remains saddled with debt and continues to make drastic cuts in its budget, the existence of the Safe Passage program itself will also come into question—despite its effectiveness, the support it receives from the community, and its necessity.

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