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Alissa Irei/MEDILL

Yovani Vasquez says he's not uneasy walking home despite gang activity in the area.

Keep it moving: Money for dangerous schools to make walk home safer

by Alissa Irei
March 18, 2010

Farragut Career Academy

Alissa Irei/MEDILL

Farragut Career Academy, in Little Village, is one of the 38 high schools Chicago Public Schools is targeting in its "culture of calm" initiative."


Alissa Irei/MEDILL

It takes 15-year-old Yovani Vasquez about 15 minutes to walk home from school each day. In violent communities like Little Village, a lot can happen in 15 minutes.

It’s been a year since 15-year-old Jorge Melendez was walking with a few buddies in Chicago’s Little Village. A car pulled up next to them. Someone drew a gun; a shot was fired.

One of the boys didn’t make it.

Jorge won’t say much about his friend’s death.  Asked what it was like, he says, “I don’t know.”

Asked if he worries about meeting a similar fate, he says not usually.

“Sometimes I do,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

He should probably worry more.

Police data shows that most of the 36 Chicago Public School students killed last school year died at the hands of underage gang members, according to a recent CNN report. In Little Village, walking home from school can be treacherous – a journey fraught with sociopolitical nuance and potential threats. To kids like Jorge, it can seem safer to become a gang banger than to walk among them, alone.

Chicago’s youth violence problem received national attention last year, after the beating death of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert on the South Side.

Albert was walking home from school when he was attacked and killed by a mob. The episode highlighted how dangerous simply getting to and from class can be for many Chicago students.

Head of Chicago Public Schools Ron Huberman has declared an unofficial war on youth violence in the city. Farragut Career Academy – where Jorge is a sophomore – is one of 38 Chicago high schools that will receive stimulus money this year to help create a culture of calm on campus.

The schools have been identified as the city’s least calm – or most dangerous –  by the district, in an analysis of five years’ worth of school and student facts and figures. The results show that a whopping 80 percent of total district shootings involved students at the 38 high schools – out of 89 total high schools – according to a Chicago Tribune report.

Those 38 schools will receive some part of an $18 million grant in 2010, as part of a larger two-year $60 million safety initiative, Huberman announced early this year. The amount of money and how it is implemented will vary by school.

Farragut administrators plan to spend at least some of its grant money enhancing the school’s existing Safe Passage system – a CPS program designed to make kids safer on their way to and from school. School officials said they also plan to add curricular, extra-curricular, mentoring and discipline programs.

“One of our goals is to provide an after school activity bus for all students participating in sports and clubs,” teacher and administrator Jason Siegellak said. “So we’re trying to provide three different times when buses will come pick them up and take them to their house, or close to their house, so that it’s safe for them to get home.”

Siegellak said they expect the culture of calm money in the next couple of months.

Alejandra Vazquez is a sophomore at Little Village Lawndale High School, another one of the 38 schools on Huberman’s list. It’s on the south side of 26th Street, in Two-Six territory – 26th Street is generally accepted as the dividing line between the Latin King and Two-Six gangs. Alejandra said transportation from after-school programs is just as important in keeping kids out of trouble as the activities themselves.

“More after-school programs would probably keep kids [from dropping out],” she said. “But it’s dangerous to keep them in school that late … If they have to be walking home even later, then I think there should be more police officers.”

“It’s not just the police that should do something,” she added. “It’s the parents too. Because they should be calling their kids or telling them to come home soon.”

Alejandra credits her own parents’ involvement in her life with her decision to avoid gangs.

“My parents are pretty strict,” she said. “They call me every once in awhile, ask me where I am. They do the same thing with my brothers.”

At Farragut, during each of the two staggered dismissal times, school employees, Safe Passage volunteers and Chicago police officers spread themselves along several blocks to keep students moving, and non-students from causing trouble.

“Keep it moving” seems to be the mantra of the Farragut Safe Passage program.

“We don’t want anyone to be standing still,” Siegellak said. “We try to have everyone go the other way, and walk toward their homes. And if we see interactions we try to get involved.”

On a recent early spring afternoon, two young men swagger slowly along the sidewalk in front of Farragut, as students swarm out of the school’s wide double doors. Their pants are baggy, and – although the sun is shining – their hoods are pulled low over their faces.

“Hey!” one officer shouts. “What are you guys doing? You keep coming and I know you aren’t from here. Can you cross to the other side of the street, please? Just keep it moving.”

When asked about the incident, a volunteer said the two are known gang members who frequently appear around dismissal time.

“[They’re] recruiting or intimidating students who are leaving the school,” he said.

Encounters with these shadowy figures can leave kids like Jorge feeling it’s safer to join them than to try to avoid them forever.

Jorge is a quiet kid with a full face and a soft, low voice. His favorite subject is math, his favorite teacher is Ms. Ramos and he plays on the school soccer team. And in the next few months he will be initiated into the Latin Kings, one of Little Village’s two largest street gangs.

He started hanging around the Kings in middle school, he said, when he became the victim of bullying. Once it became clear the gang bangers had his back, the bullies left him alone.

He said he still doesn’t know who fired the shot that killed his friend. The boy who died was a King, so the killer could have been a Two-Six – the Latin Kings’ biggest local rival. Or he could have hailed from a smaller area gang.

Kevin Bacon is the dean of attendance and discipline at Farragut. He said gang boundaries coincide with neighborhood streets, and everyone in the community knows who belongs where.

“This school is in what would be considered Latin King territory,” he said. “That would be the largest gang that’s represented in the school. We have a small, small percentage of kids that would come from Two-Six or Satan Disciples. And then we have Vice Lords. We have Gangster Disciples. We might even have a small percentage of Four Corner Hustlers.”

Jorge wears a sweatshirt with the hood pulled low to cover his face, and a black-and-white striped polo with the words “G Unit” embroidered across the chest. He walks home from school with his head down, occasionally glancing around or over his shoulder, even though he insists the trip doesn’t make him nervous.

“I got friends everywhere,” he said.

Maybe. But in this neighborhood, it’s hard to say whether it’s more dangerous to have no tough friends or the wrong ones. Non-gang members, just like Kings and Two-Sixes, must be vigilant.

“Walking home is safe only for the first few blocks after school,” Alejandra said. “Afterward it’s not, because you don’t see a lot of cop cars around.”

And Alejandra’s decision to avoid gang violence doesn’t mean her life hasn’t been touched by it.

“One of my [classmates] was killed when he was walking down the street, home from school,” she said. “There was a gang fight that was going on in front of him, but he tried crossing the street. He got confused, and they shot at him.”

He was 16 years old when he was buried.