Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=128947
Story Retrieval Date: 5/20/2013 10:49:37 PM CST
Friday at 3:25 p.m., Perspectives Charter School in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood looks much like many other schools at dismissal time.
A motorcade snakes around the school’s perimeter, the idling cars waiting for the doors to open and release a steady stream of students in khaki, white and maroon uniforms. A few parents chat underneath budding trees on the humid spring day.
But down the tree-lined street, several security guards survey locations surrounding the school while three Chicago police officers monitor the neighborhood, ready to signal additional officers meandering the streets in police vehicles if there’s trouble.
And then there’s the towering presence of Big Tony, who stands sentry on the corner of May and 81st Streets armed with a whistle and radio, ready to respond to a scuffle.
"Right here is a hot spot," patrolman Anthony "Big Tony" Jones says of the gang presence at the intersection outside the school.
Jones, along with fellow U.S. military veterans Laurence Burns and Herald Watson, spends most weekday afternoons shuttling between St. Sabina Academy and Perspectives Charter School as part of the Pedestrian Safety Travel Zone program. Their mission is to help kids feel safe traveling through known gang territories on their way to and from school.
Community organizers, parents and students welcome the extra authority the veterans bring.
"Most of the kids since we been there, they know who we are," Burns says. "If they’re afraid, they’ll come talk to us, they know they can come to us."
The veterans’ experiences on the front lines make them ideal people to deter violence against students, says Ernie Sanders who coordinates the program through the Auburn Gresham Development Corporation. "They know how to diffuse these types of situations."
Sanders notes that although more than 30 Chicago Public School students have died from gun violence since last summer, none attended the schools served by the program.
"Before they [the patrolmen] were in place, I would say we were having fights or some type of adverse behavior at least two or three times a week," Sanders says. "Right now they’re infrequent."
"I have to say they [the patrolmen] are directly the cause of that," he adds.
School administrators have seen a difference as well.
"There were issues with kids getting stopped, hit up for money or cell phones," says Helen Dumas, St. Sabina’s principal. "They [students] feel a lot safer. We’ve had much fewer incidents."
The Pedestrian Safety Travel Zone program’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Parents, school administrators and community organizers are rallying behind the initiative as part of a greater effort to reduce violence among youth in Auburn Gresham.
Sanders says he hopes to expand the program to surrounding neighborhoods to broaden the impact of the safety network.
"We are gathering all of the local schools in a one-mile radius and we’re creating this safety alliance," he says. "It’s literally becoming a safety village."
The Illinois Department of Human Services has given the program $15,000 to buy reflective vests and radios and pay the patrolmen a small stipend.
But the men say it’s not about the money.
"They’re getting stopped before they’re getting started, the little babies," says "Big Tony" Jones. It’s not the students who start the violence, he says, it’s the gang members hanging out across the street "trying to stop these children from getting ahead."
The gang members have dropped out of school, Jones says, "and they don’t want nobody else to go."