Why Safe Pas­sage is worth the high cost

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - F. Chris Cur­ran, PhD, is as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Bal­ti­more County. This ar­ti­cle orig­i­nally was pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion. BY F. CHRIS CUR­RAN

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.

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

Be­gan af­ter fa­tal beat­ing

The 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.

En­ter the 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 de-es­ca­la­tion, and, if needed, re­port in­stances of crime to au­thor­i­ties.

Hav­ing so many mon­i­tors on the streets of Chicago, how­ever, comes at no small cost. Work­ers are paid $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 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.

CPS 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 CPS ex­panded the Safe Pas­sage pro­gram to 53 schools in 2013, in the wake of a num­ber of school clo­sures.

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.

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 it 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.


A Safe Pas­sage worker watches stu­dents ar­rive on the first day of school in 2016 at Kelvyn Park High School.

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