BRONZEVILLE — The mayor praised what a study called the safest school year on record, just over a year after school closings led many to predict violence in the streets.
"The fears, justifiably raised, did not bear out," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said after a wide-ranging roundtable on Chicago Public Schools issues Wednesday at Police Headquarters.
The mayor and CPS Security Chief Jadine Chou touted a University of Chicago Crime Lab study showing that 2013-14 was what Chou called "the safest school year since we have started tracking student safety in 2007."
According to the study, out-of-school suspensions, referrals for expulsions and in-school arrests all declined by more than 30 percent, and 49 fewer CPS students were victims of shootings, with 12 fewer student homicides than the year before, down from 36 to 24.
"Our gains in safety are translating to gains in the classroom," Chou added, pointing to figures showing that 82 percent of freshmen are on track to graduate in three more years, and the district graduation rate for seniors rose to 65 percent, up 7 percent since Emanuel took office in 2011. She said there were no major incidents along Safe Passage routes involving students going to or from school before or immediately after classes.
"It's nothing to celebrate," said Jamie Adams, a Roosevelt High School senior and member of Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools, in response to the media event. "It's ridiculous.
"There are less people dying," she added. "But people are still dying, and until that number is zero, there's nothing to celebrate."
Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who sat in on the roundtable, credited Safe Passage workers and also CPD's Gang School Safety Team, a group of about a dozen officers who act as liaisons with CPS to head off gang conflicts before they get to schools.
"We invested an awful lot of resources," McCarthy said, and got "a return on our investment."
"This is very promising, and we've got to double down as a city on this," Emanuel said, adding that the Safe Passage program would continue into next school year at a budget of $1 million.
"The community changed," said Autry Phillips, executive director of the Target Area Development Corp. in Chicago. He said parents bought into Safe Passage and came to trust workers monitoring routes to and from schools.
Emanuel also praised "a mind shift" at CPS that went from "zero tolerance" on discipline to "a culture of calm," adding, "Our schools were becoming a pipeline for jails," and instead are functioning as "a pipeline for a job." Emanuel said he was out to make sure "kids of color ... don't unfairly bear the burden of expulsion."
"Zero tolerance does not work," Chou said.
Karen Van Ausdal, CPS' director of social and emotional learning, said it was based on "interventions instead of expulsions" to keep kids in class and was reflected in the district's new Student Code of Conduct.
"Mistakes are natural. Conflicts are natural," said Sullivan High School Principal Chad Adams. He said by addressing such conflicts directly between students, rather than through punishment, they're converted into "learning opportunities," adding, "You're actually holding kids more accountable."
Emanuel called it "a totally different approach," compared with previous initiatives based on police deployment and metal detectors.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sat in on the roundtable and praised the city for a "great job," saying, "We want to make sure things get better in Chicago" and adding, "I think we're gonna see the Chicago we want in a fairly short amount of time."
At its most heated, the debate found Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis calling Emanuel "the murder mayor."
CTU responded Wednesday with a statement saying there was a "disconnect" between the data and the "unhealthy climates and cultures" in schools and calling for more resources to be devoted to education. Its Twitter feed derided Holder's appearance with the roundtable and said, "If fewer students were harmed in CPS schools this year, that's probably because students had 50 fewer schools to attend."