CHICAGO - Thousands of Chicago children whose schools were shuttered last spring walked to new ones on the first day of school Monday under the watchful eye of police officers and newly hired safety guards there to provide protection as the kids crossed unfamiliar streets — many of them gang boundaries.
No incidents of trouble were reported, police said. While that didn't surprise parents and grandparents, they said they were still concerned that the city's obvious show of first-day force won't keep their children safe in the weeks and months to come.
"I think it's just show-and-tell right now," said Annie Stovall, who walked her granddaughter, 9-year-old Kayla Porter, to Gresham Elementary School, which is about five blocks farther from home than Kayla's previous South Side school. "Five, six weeks down the road, let's see what's going to happen."
The preparation and show of force shows what's at stake for Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest school district, after it closed almost 50 schools last spring in the hopes of improving academic performance and saving millions of dollars. About 12,000 of the district's 400,000 students were affected by the closures.
For months, parents, teachers and community activists have warned that forcing children to pass through some of the city's more impoverished and dangerous neighbourhoods — where some already walking in the middle of the street to avoid being ambushed by gang members — to get to school puts them at undue risk.
Statistics suggest those concerns are valid. An analysis of Chicago crime data by WBEZ-FM found that in 2013, there have been 133 shootings and 38 homicides in and around areas that have been newly marked as Safe Passage routes.
And if the attention Chicago received after a 15-year-old honour student was killed about a mile (two kilometres) from President Barack Obama's home in January is any indication, there is no doubt a similar media firestorm will occur if a child is caught in gang crossfire on the way to or from school.
With the hope of preventing problems, the financially strapped city hired 600 workers at a rate of $10 an hour to supplement a Safe Passage program that has existed since 2009, — launched the same year a Chicago honours student's beating death was videotaped.
Police worked with residents and the school system to map out routes near 52 of the so-called "welcoming schools" that are taking in students from the closed schools. Along those routes, the city has put up scores of "Safe Passage" signs.
Associated Press writer Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.
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