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Editorial: ‘Safe Passage’ to parks could break a damaging cycle

Fearful of venturing to his local park, Benyamin Nunn, 13, plays basketball in his backyard using a milk crate for a hoop. 2008. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

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A Woodlawn sixth grader, so fearful of going to his local park he shot baskets alone, in his backyard, using a milk crate for a hoop.

A West Town fourth grader whose idea of playing outside was to do so by herself, on her front porch or under a window, so someone could always watch her.

Those are just two accounts of Chicago Public School children reported in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2008, during a three-day series called “Schooled in Fear.” One of its more disturbing revelations: fear of guns and violence was turning some CPS students into virtual prisoners in their own homes. They were afraid to venture out to play with other kids, something that set off ripple effects on their academic lives and socialization skills.

With a spate of Chicago children shot just this month, some parents this summer likely still fear letting their youngsters roam the block and romp with other kids.

Two new programs hold the promise of breaking that cycle by helping kids enjoy a fundamental rite of childhood — playing freely with other kids. Each offers the prospect of “Safe Passage” to Chicago Park District summer programs, an idea modeled on a CPS “Safe Passage” effort.

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One $112,500 program, funded by the Park District, has hired 150 adults to serve as “Safe Passage” monitors. They will watch 13- to 18-year-olds as they travel through at-risk areas on their way to and from late afternoon and evening basketball programs in 20 city parks.

Another is even more comprehensive. The brainstorm of Alds. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Sophia King (4th), the “Building Community Block by Block” Summer Safety Initiative has hired 88 adults to serve as “Safe Passage” monitors for kids venturing to and from daytime programs at seven city parks in the two South Side wards.

Dowell said she and King worked with Chicago Police to target parks abutting multiple gang turfs, walking routes through sites of increased calls for police service, and areas of “loitering” by adults selling everything from loose cigarettes to drugs.

“We want to be able to ensure that children can get to a park, be in a park, and have a safe summer,” Dowell said.

The two-ward, roughly $210,000 public-private program also encourages adults to be more active and aware in their community by taking evening walks, leaving their porch lights on, organizing outdoor play events or starting block clubs. Plus, it offers 60 youths vocational training or experience in other safety efforts.

The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab will analyze the two-ward program’s impact on crime in the hope of improving and expanding the summer effort. The Park District program’s evaluation will be “based on the continued safety of the participants,” a city spokeswoman said. Its CPS model is considered a success, she said, because since 2009 no child has been seriously harmed along its routes.

Both initiatives could achieve more than enhanced safety. Back in 2008, educators reported that children left “house-bound” by fear of violence were coming to school with limited socialization skills. They did not know how to play with other kids on the playground or how to work with peers in classroom groups. Even their vocabulary was affected by their contracted world experience.

As a result, we’d welcome an analysis of whether the two summer programs produce increased park district participation and better attendance. Are they bringing kids into city parks who had stayed away in the past? In other words, are more kids playing with other kids more frequently as a result of these efforts?

We hope so.

Play is so critical to a child’s development that the United Nations recognizes it as the right of every child. Through play, experts say, kids develop a sense of fairness. They learn skills that carry into their adult lives: how to collaborate, compromise and cooperate.

These are all attributes we could use more of in Chicago.

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