By Sigi Perez and Taylor Schultz
A Safe Passage worker walks to his assigned post. (Photo/Taylor Schultz)
On a cold, November morning, Robert Dixon stands on the intersection of Damen Avenue and Marquette Road. A 55-year-old Army veteran, Dixon spends his mornings and evenings helping young students stay safe on their trek to school. He said he loves having the ability to help protect his community.
Unfortunately, Dixon is struggling to make ends meet.
“We have no sick days, no personal days, no holidays,” Dixon said.
He expressed serious concern for his fellow Safe Passage Route workers, citing the fact that some of them can’t afford to make rent.
According to Chicago Public Schools, Safe Passage workers earn $15.80 per hour and work 25 hours per week. They do not work every week of the year, as “exact start and end times will vary by the school.” At the same time, workers are expected to “stand for long periods and tolerate all weather conditions”, which means below-freezing temperatures in Chicago’s harsh winters.
Chicago Public Schools started the Safe Passage Program in 2009. The program was started to ensure safety for students walking to and from school. The CPS Office of Communication stated in a press release from August of 2023, the program “aims to improve student safety during daily walks to and from school and increase engagement through partnerships with community-based organizations.” said CPS Office of Communication.
Dr. Dave Stovall, a Black studies and criminology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago shared some insight on how this program came to life. “Young folks were walking through corridors, fire trucks, and full-on armed SWAT teams…” said Stovall. “I think [the] program and its relationship to militarism is something that is very rarely discussed but becomes important in terms of how it’s structured,” said Stovall.
Militarism is the belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests. In this case, the Safe Passage Route workers help protect and defend the children walking alone.
Over the last 14 years, the Safe Passage program has gradually grown at a consistent rate. Currently, 188 schools and more than 78,000 students have Safe Passage Routes, according to the CPS website.
The Safe Passage program has facilitated significant changes in the city of Chicago. According to the Journal of Urban Economics, “Schools that had the program for more than two school years show a significant reduction in crime, with an approximate 20% decline in violent crime.”
Confirming these findings is an article in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization that emphasizes the fact that the reduction in crimes related to assault, narcotics, and criminal damage/trespass were reduced “precisely [in] the areas where monitors are stationed.” This article goes on to highlight that even streets near Safe Passage Routes see a reduction in crime, showing the effectiveness of the program as a deterrent.
The Chicago Police Department also participates in the Safe Passage Program. Retired police officer Kellee Simz (19th District) was one of the officers in her district who worked hand in hand in the program.
“It’s kind of like the big brother theory, there are adults around and hopefully they don’t get beat up or hurt or there’s any kind of gang warfare,” Simz said.
The big brother theory means that if there is a group presence, it is less likely for something bad to happen. The Safe Passage workers are there to make sure all students are safe when coming to and from school. The Chicago Police Department’s presence isn't a necessity.
“I don’t think it's needed in most schools,” Simz said. “I'm sure there are some of the tougher neighborhoods where they do have gang conflict and different gangs. Going back and forth on that route is probably beneficial, but not using tax dollars on all the schools, absolutely not.”
To be more cost-effective to help support the volunteers, it might be beneficial to reexamine the schools on the safe passage routes. Some of the school's routes don't wrap around the school. It would make sense to put more monitors at schools in more worrisome neighborhoods with longer routes for students.
Simz said that none of the volunteers were parents. There is no parent involvement in this program at all which is disheartening. The parents whose children walk to and from school alone should be more willing to help.
Stovall mentioned that those who have been working for this program have started to understand that it is more about relationships and not so much about militarized zones students walk through. “It can also be just as dehumanizing depending on who’s part of the safety team in a particular neighborhood,” said Stovall.
“We just sit out in front of the school and had our presence known there,” Simz said. “We never got out of the [patrol] car. We were told to maybe drive around the school just to show our presence and then the volunteers, if they needed any kind of help, of course they would flag us down or we would be close to the school if needed.”
Instead of having the Chicago Police Department there for only one month of the school year, it could be beneficial to hire more volunteers for the beginning of the school year. Or if the Safe Passage Program had lead monitors to be in charge of the school. This would give them more opportunity and responsibility.
“I believe it does run out of the school year, but as far as the police department’s participation in it, it was just the beginning of the school year, again to reinforce and be helpful to the people that are helping the kids to and from school. But after about four weeks, we didn't do it,” said Simz
Meghna Dasgupta interviews Taylor Schultz about reporting this story.
Both Simz and Stovall see this program as beneficial, but not to its greatest extent. It needs to be more community-based. Multiple parents talk outside of their children’s schools talking with other parents. Wouldn’t it make more sense if they volunteered as Safe Passage Workers?
Despite the massive benefit and service to the community the Safe Passage program provides, monitors like Dixon say they think the program doesn’t support them. Dixon emphasizes the fact that Safe Passage Monitors don’t receive the same benefits as Traffic Management Authority Crossing Guards.
Dixon has been part of the Safe Passage community for four years and said he’s glad he could perform his civic duty. The veteran feels a strong calling, saying the aspects of this position that are the most beneficial are the ability “to make sure the parents [are] aware of the safety and the kids [are] looked out for.”