City offers unique program for gang-affected youth

By Darryl Holliday

The city is putting a new philosophy into action with high school youth affected by gang violence.

The Chicago Police Department’s Gang School Safety Team, which initially began among 25 schools in CPD’s Area 1 this March, is expanding to include schools in Area 2 as well. Combined, the two areas cover the entire South Side.

The program is a unique collaboration between CPD, Chicago Public Schools and the Cook County Juvenile Court system in an attempt to reduce the potential of retaliation when youth are engaged in

gang violence.

Expansion of the Gang School Safety Team program, comprising 10 full-time officers of CPD’s Gang Enforcement Unit, was announced during a press conference on Oct. 18.

The plan is designed to provide kids with alternatives to gang violence—not through arrests and jail-time—but with involvement and intervention.

“Primarily it’s a conversation—us letting the kids know we’re aware of the incident and we’re aware that it’s affected someone close to them,” said Dr. Miquel Lewis, project manager for Cook County’s Juvenile Probation and Court Services Department. “It’s also letting the kids know we intend to be present, to be visible, to be in support of them and to be in support of the victims of the incident and the victim’s families, also to be certain that these incidents don’t escalate.”

According to Lewis, the program is being well received by both students and their parents. To date, approximately 400 private interventions have been performed on a voluntary, case-by-case basis.

“The idea is not to send these kids to jail,” said Police Sgt. Kenneth Boudreau. “There are studies saying that can ruin a life and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

According to Boudreau, the program emerged from the Police Executive Research Forum and is, among others, based on studies of cognitive dissonance and the interaction of personality and environment. In conversations with Gang Enforcement Unit officers, youth involved in gang violence are given time with parents and school staff, are encouraged toward a peaceful resolution.

The CPD’s Gang School Safety Team has helped to train 1,400 CPS security officers, as well as 400 safe-passage workers who monitor hallways and provide an adult presence for kids to and from school.

Rosalyn Bennett, dean of students at Walter H. Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St., said the school has 25 trained safe passage workers to provide guidance and a sense of presence for students, which has helped her in her position

“I think [the program] is effective,” Bennett said. “I think we still have to work some kinks out, but we’re going in the right direction. Everything is a process.”

Bennett also said she has formed relationships with Juvenile Probation workers and CPD officers, whose help she said she would not be able to do without.

“Police don’t normally get involved in this,” Boudreau said. “It’s almost social work … We can’t arrest ourselves out of this social problem. Everything that’s done in this program is geared toward the adolescent, juvenile or young adult and it’s geared toward reducing violence.”

According to Lewis, the expansion of the program was done out of necessity.

“Unfortunately, we saw a rise in incidents occurring in Area 2 and so to be responsive to the community’s need to be safe, it was really the logical decision,” Lewis said. “As Area 2 recognizes the benefits of this type of intervention, I think it will really support a change in philosophy about how police and systems respond to incidents in the community.”

Positive outcomes of the program are apparent in kids who appreciate outreach from adults in the community, Lewis said, as well as in significant relationships with schools that benefit from partners working to ensure safety.

“There’s the immediate benefit of it,” Lewis said. “But it also says to the kids [who] have been impacted by an incident that there are opportunities for recovery—recovery from their emotional distress.”

According to Boudreau, officers use their knowledge of local gang life to better provide alternatives to high school youth.

“We do multiple interventions everyday,” Boudreau said. “We’re out here everyday, every time there’s a shooting.”

Though prevention methods are typically hard to gauge, Police Superintendent Jody Weis cited at the press conference that high schools in Area 1 had no students killed through gang violence from March to June of this year, compared to five murders within the same time in 2009.

“By and large, traditionally, community residents’ impression of policing and court systems is that they don’t result in favorable outcomes,” Lewis said. “I think we’re showing right now that with a different sort of approach to addressing incidents there will be favorable outcomes for kids, for victims of incidents and for communities at large.”