CITY HALL — With less than a month before school begins, the city has begun installing new "safe passage" signs along school routes, especially from closing schools to receiving schools.
The city's Department of Transportation has installed the signs at 10 schools and completed new crosswalks at 30 schools, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office.
It's part of an overall safe passage program that has also seen the hiring of 245 residents to serve as guides along the walks to school, as well as the removal of abandoned cars and graffiti and the inspection of abandoned buildings along those routes.
"Safe passage" became a heightened issue with the closing of 50 Chicago Public Schools this year. Some parents said closing schools would force their kids to walk through rival gang territory.
To ease these concerns, the City Council approved stiffer fines for possessing weapons along those routes, and last week Emanuel and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) joined in sponsoring an ordinance amendment that would do the same for possessing weapons in or near CTA vehicles, buildings and bus and train stops.
"We recently strengthened the law to create school safety zones and increase protections for students who walk to school, and we are now proposing to strengthen the law to protect riders of buses and trains, especially the many students who rely on the CTA as a key mode of transportation," Emanuel said.
"We are sending the message that we will not tolerate any violence around our students," Dowell added. "Regardless of how they get to school or other activities, students should feel safe."
The ordinance creates "public transportation safety zones" and is written in a way that also applies to CPS buses, as it refers to any publicly funded form of transportation.
The first offense for having assault weapons or high-capacity magazines in those zones would mean a jail term of 120 days to six months and a fine of $1,000 to $5,000. A third offense dictates a mandatory six-month jail sentence and fines up to $20,000.
Possessing a silencer or laser sight in those zones would call for a jail term of 30 days to six months and up to a $5,000 fine on first offense, and the same six-month sentence and fines of up to $20,000 for the third.
Possessing any dangerous weapon in those zones would mean a jail term of 30 days to six months on first offense, with fines up to $1,000, and the third would again mean a mandatory six-month sentence with fines up to $5,000.
Many who fought the school closings have said the mayor and CPS would have "blood on their hands" if anyone is hurt along the routes to new schools during the next school year.
At an appearance on the West Side Monday, though, police Supt. Garry McCarthy said the school closings would not suddenly be casting children into harm's way.
“I want to be clear about something: These kids were crossing gang boundaries before — going to the schools they’ve been going to previously," McCarthy said. "This is not a new problem in the city of Chicago.”
He said police are analyzing routes for each school, working with pastors, elected officials, community groups and individuals to make the best possible plans.
McCarthy went on to say Emanuel is coordinating the safe passage route strategy with representatives from all city departments, and McCarthy said he's confident everything will be in place by the start of the school year.
“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to bond even further with the community, because at the end of the day we all know that violence is not just a police problem. Everybody has to get involved in the solution.”