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Marquette Safety Zone Provides 'Invisible' Shield

Marquette students have been subjected to noticeably less gang recruitment attempts and the attendant bullying since the Southwest Organizing Project brought in Cease Fire anti-violence workers with $100,000 in funding from Elev8.

Eric Young Smith

On a sunny May afternoon, Orlando, a stocky African-American man wearing a green baseball hat, stands on the southwest corner of 65th and Richmond, a few dozen feet away from a main exit at Marquette Elementary in Chicago Lawn.

Last fall, children leaving Marquette were subject to daily harassment by older, gang-involved youth, who waited at this corner to pressure young men to join their gangs. Sometimes, they beat them up.

But thanks to Elev8 and the Southwest Organizing Project’s Safety Zone initiative, which brought Orlando and other violence prevention workers to the area, gang activity near Marquette has declined substantially—from daily to just a few times a month, max.

On this day, the scene is calm. Four girls chat and gossip within inches of the man in the green hat, who keeps his eyes fixed on the cars driving westbound on Richmond. It’s like he isn’t even there. Across the street, kids and parents stop at a cart to buy bags of chicharrónes, a Mexican snack of fried pork rinds doused in lime juice and hot sauce.

Within 10 minutes, the last wave of departing students washes over the corner and disappears. Though a play-fight among Marquette students briefly gets out of hand, there are no major disturbances. No carloads of teens shouting gang slogans or starting fights.

Orlando is one of about a dozen part-time workers who have maintained a lookout in a two-block radius around Marquette since January. Their organization, Cease Fire, is the highly respected violence prevention program that intervenes directly with youth at high risk of engaging in violence.

“They’re really providing a presence to deter any activity and definitely interacting with gang members who are not Marquette students,” says Shoshannah Yehudah, Marquette’s Elev8 director. 

Lester, another Cease Fire outreach worker, credits their success to relationships already established through a regular movie night held nearby at the Inner City Muslim Action Network’s health clinic.

“Before we were doing [Marquette Safety Zone], a lot of us were mentoring older kids at movie night,” he says. When the safety zone workers arrived at Marquette, “They drew to us because we were familiar. That helped deter a lot of stuff. [Gang members] still come around, but there’s not as much bullying as before.”

"We didn't post it on the gang website or anything," says Rabbi Joshua Salter with a laugh. "One Friday, they saw their corner was no longer their corner."

Eric Young Smith

Recent research supports this strategy for reducing and preventing violence near schools. In May, the Consortium on Chicago School Research released a report on school safety that showed only about half of students in Chicago Public Schools felt safe in the area right outside their schools—within a one-block radius.

“The area outside the school is even more problematic for students than the route they travel between home and school,” says the report, which advises that “school leaders be aware of the places that students feel least safe—for example, the areas just outside and around the school—and increase the adult presence in response to students’ concerns.”

That’s exactly what Elev8 and SWOP did. Elev8 provided $100,000 to fund the new Safety Zone, and SWOP had the relationships with Cease Fire to bring workers on the scene quickly. “They didn’t know we were coming,” says Rabbi Joshua Salter, an organizer with SWOP who leads the Safety Zone initiative. “We didn’t post it on the gang website or anything,” he adds with a laugh. “One Friday they saw that their corner was no longer their corner.”

Though violence is down, the Safety Zone effort is not a silver bullet. Fights among students are still a problem, and play-fights can end badly when they become an excuse for bullying and someone gets hurt, as happened on that May afternoon. Still, Yehudah says key administrators and parent leaders at Marquette appreciate the difference the zone has made in helping students get home safely.

The question now is how to sustain the zone once the initial Elev8 funds run out this summer.  “We’re trying to be creative and think of ways to continue this if funding is not available,” says Yehudah, who is meeting with parents concerned about safety and hoping to recruit additional parent patrol volunteers to staff afternoon shifts next school year.

Posted in Safety, Chicago Lawn


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