Chicago’s Safe Passage program costs a lot, but it may provide students safer routes to school

While walking to school last month, a 15-year-old Chicago girl was confronted by two masked men in a van with tinted windows in an attempted kidnapping. Fortunately, the girl escaped and ran to a nearby adult. The men drove off.

As it turns out, the presence of this adult was more than a fortunate coincidence. For the past decade, Chicago Public Schools has been placing hundreds of adult monitors on streets around schools as part of a program called Safe Passage.

Every morning and afternoon, Safe Passage monitors take up position along designated routes near a quarter of Chicago’s schools in neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of crime.

Chicago is not alone in this approach. Philadelphia has a similar program called WalkSafePHL. Los Angeles has a program called Safe Passage for children who live in gang violence “hot zones.” Other cities, such as Washington D.C., where at least two high school students were stabbed to death in separate incidents in recent years on the way home from school, are in the midst of scaling up such efforts.

As a researcher who studies school safety, I recently examined whether the Safe Passage program in Chicago is making a difference and worth the cost. But first, a little history.

Began after fatal beating

Nadashia Thomas, 6, a cousin of Derrion Albert, holds a sign beside a poster of her slain cousin at Fenger High School in Chicago in 2009. Nam Y. Huh/AP
Chicago’s Safe Passage program began in 2009 after a 16-year-old student, Derrion Albert, was beaten to death with a railroad tie after leaving his high school on the city’s south side. The fatal beating was captured on cellphone video that was shown worldwide and prompted then-President Barack Obama to dispatch top cabinet officials to the city to find ways to end such violence. Albert – an honor roll student – had been an innocent bystander caught in the fight between two rival gangs.

Enter Chicago’s Safe Passage program. Wearing yellow vests and carrying radios to connect them to emergency personnel, the street monitors who work for the program seek to provide safe routes for students to commute to and from school. Safe Passage workers are stationed on designated routes where they work to be a friendly face to students, engage in conflict deescalation, and, if needed, report instances of crime to authorities.

The attempted kidnapping of the 15-year-old female student represents a prime example of Safe Passage in action.

Having so many monitors on the streets of Chicago, however, comes at no small cost. Workers are paid US$10.50 an hour and work for 5 hours per day. With 1,350 workers deployed at the start of this school year, the program costs about $354,000 dollars per week in workers’ wages alone, a cost that has been covered by the school district, city and state.

Given the cost, it is important to know the impacts of Safe Passage.

Chicago Public Schools has touted that Safe Passage routes have experienced a 32 percent decline in crime since 2012. Yet, over the same years, crime across Chicago as a whole has declined, dropping by 15 percent from 2012 to 2017.