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

A safety guard watches as parents walk with their children along a safe passage route on the first day of school in Chicago in 2013. Spencer Green/AP

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.

In examining Safe Passage, one of the things I sought to do was figure out the impacts of Safe Passage in isolation from other crime trends occurring at the same time. I recently published the first peer-reviewed study that examines Safe Passage’s impact on crime.

The study drew on three years of crime data from Chicago along with detailed mappings of Safe Passage routes and nearby streets. It examines what happened to reported crime when Chicago Public Schools expanded the Safe Passage program to 53 schools in 2013 in the wake of a number of school closures. Given concerns at the time about displaced students having to travel through unfamiliar neighborhoods to new schools, Safe Passage was implemented at a number of “welcoming schools.” These schools were designated to receive students from schools that were closed.

Gauging the impact

The findings of my study suggest that Safe Passage reduced reported crime on the Safe Passage routes. Safe Passage appears to have contributed to 6 to 17 percent less reported crime relative to other nearby streets. The biggest reductions in crime appeared for crimes occurring outdoors and during school hours. This suggests that the program has increased the safety of students’ routes to school.

Unpublished work by other researchers has found similar results. Some of that work suggests that impacts may be bigger around high schools.

Interestingly, however, I found that crime was also reduced on these streets on weekends, suggesting that Safe Passage may deter crime even when workers are not present, perhaps through other aspects of the program that involved addressing vacant homes, graffiti and other signs of neglect. Alternatively, it could be that some of the effect is attributable to changing patterns of crime that would have occurred regardless of Safe Passage.

Despite apparent impacts on the routes themselves, my study did not find impacts on the areas around the schools more broadly. For schools that were designated to receive students from the schools that were closed in 2013, Safe Passage did not reduce reported crime in the quarter mile around the schools as a whole.

Is Safe Passage worth the cost?

The Safe Passage program is expensive, but so is crime. The cost of crimes such as robbery and assault can range from $42,000 to over $100,000 per incident. These costs include lost property or earnings by the victim, court and corrections costs, as well as pain and suffering on the part of the victim. Of course, when the crime is a homicide, as it was in the fatal beating of Derrion Albert, the cost is exponentially more. No dollar amount can be placed on a human life.

But speaking strictly in terms of dollars and cents, if Safe Passage was to reduce crime on routes by about 6 percent, a conservative estimate in my study, then each crime deterred would need to save about $23,000 to cover the costs of the program. This is because a 6 percent reduction in crime on Safe Passage routes in 2013 equated to 6.5 fewer reported crimes per week across Safe Passage routes in the city. At the 2013 staffing cost of $150,000 per week, each deterred crime needed to save, on average, $23,000 – a figure derived from $150,000 divided by 6.5 crimes. Covering the costs of the program, then, is certainly possible if the crimes prevented are of a serious or violent nature.

The benefits of Safe Passage may extend well beyond deterred crime. Some qualitative research suggests that teachers and students view Safe Passage favorably. A working paper by other researchers finds that the program may reduce student absenteeism. If students feel safer, attend school more and perform better academically as a result of Safe Passage, the program’s costs may well be justified for reasons beyond crime reduction. If this is the case, efforts by other cities to implement and expand Safe Passage programs could be worthwhile.

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