Carolyn Dyson stood watch just outside Chicago’s Roswell B. Mason Elementary School as two fourth-grade boys dribbled a basketball near a door.
Dyson, 59, greeted them by name, which led one of the boys to complain his friend had been “lying.”
Dyson interrupted: “What did I tell you about that word? You don’t say ‘lying.’ ”
She pressed him to remember a softer alternative: “What do you say?”
“Telling a story,” he answered.
Dyson nodded, turned to me, and explained why she steps in against strong language.
“It can lead to a fight,” she said. “Why let it get started when I can nip it in the bud?”
Dyson stands hardly 5 feet, 5 inches, and petite at that. She wears a neon yellow vest but carries no equipment except for a cell phone. She gets paid little more than the minimum wage.
But she is part of an army of Chicago civilians with deep roots in their neighborhoods who help suppress violence near schools, so children can move safely.
As the city prepares to expand this program, called Safe Passage, new academic research suggests that is a wise investment.
One study found a double-digit drop in violent crime on streets where monitors such as Dyson are posted and found that the benefit stretches hours after the monitors finish their shifts.
“Once they arrive, crime goes down and then stays down after they leave,” said Ignacio Sarmiento-Barbieri, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign economist who co-authored that study.
A beating death
In 2009, a South Side honor-roll student named Derrion Albert, 16, got caught on his way home from school in a brawl between groups of teenagers swinging wooden railroad ties.
His fatal beating, captured on video and broadcast around the world, led school officials under Mayor Richard M. Daley to launch Safe Passage.
The program posted adult monitors on designated routes around 35 schools to make them safer for students.
Since then, Safe Passage has expanded several times, mostly notably in 2013, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration shuttered 50 schools, forcing students to cross more gang boundaries on their way to schools further from their homes.
It seems almost too simple. Put civilian adults on corners around schools in their neighborhood. Pay them $12 or $13 an hour to stand there in the bright vests and watch.
But peer-reviewed academic articles about Safe Passage are starting to appear. They’re reaching similar conclusions: The program is effective in tamping down crime.
The University of Illinois study, published in March by the Journal of Urban Economics, found violent crime drops by 14% along streets with Safe Passage workers.
The effect tends to last two or three hours after a Safe Passage shift, said Sarmiento-Barbieri, the economist. And the program does not just push the crime to other streets.
“There’s no displacement effect,” he said.
Sarmiento-Barbieri said Safe Passage monitors deter crime because of who they are.
“They hire from within the community, so the guy guarding the street may know you,” he said, referring to a criminal. “Now it’s easier for someone to identify you and report you. So that [increases] the cost of conducting business — of doing a criminal enterprise on these blocks.”
Informal social controls
This approach is much different from Chicago’s main responses to violent crime over the years. Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale said those have revolved around gang suppression by police.
“The research shows that those kinds of approaches, even when they’re successful, come with a huge amount of collateral consequences in terms of high levels of incarceration and police use of force, etc.,” Vitale said. “So I’ve been looking for non-policing strategies to try to deal with those problems.”
Safe Passage is run by Chicago Public Schools through nonprofit organizations based in neighborhoods. The Police Department helps plan the routes but, otherwise, does not play a big role.
Vitale said that is important.
“Informal social controls generally work much better than formal social controls,” Vitale said. “When we can do things at the community level rather than involving police and courts and prison, they tend to be more effective.”
Since the 2013 school closures, the city has kept expanding Safe Passage. The program now includes about 1,300 workers and 160 schools — a quarter of public schools citywide.
Safe Passage workers now also stand watch around some parks to help kids get to summer programs. This summer, the number of parks is expanding to 40.
“You have to create a culture where community members play a role in owning that safety,” said Jadine Chou, the school district’s safety and security chief. “Our strategy with Safe Passage is to really spread the culture — to make sure that people understand that we can keep children safe together.”
The school district says its Safe Passage budget for the current school year is $21.2 million. To put that number in context, the city is spending more than $100 million a year for an expansion of the police department that totaled 1,000 officers.
Here comes Ms. Dyson
On a recent day outside Mason, the West Side school where Dyson works, a chilly drizzle started to fall. Dyson, posted on a street corner behind the school, pulled out a plastic rain bonnet to cover her hair.
“I’ve been living in North Lawndale for 59 years — my whole life,” Dyson said of the neighborhood.
For two and a half hours every morning, she hustles the kids toward the school.
“If they’re running around, I tell them, ‘OK, let’s go. It’s 8:05 a.m. You got to get in school if you want breakfast,’ ” Dyson said.
She comes back in the afternoon for another two and a half hours.
“I make sure the kids get across the street safe [and] make sure they get to the cars if their parents are here to pick them up,” Dyson said. “If their ride is not here, usually I have them stand by me until their ride comes if they’re running late.”
Dyson said she has not needed to call the police a single time since she started as a Safe Passage monitor four years ago.
But she has had situations.
“If I see someone just want to go and start a fight,” Dyson said, “what I do is intervene and tell them right then and there, ‘Hey, it’s not going to happen. Either you’re going to go home, or I’m going to call the principal and give her your name. And then she’s going to deal with the consequence when you get to school tomorrow.’ They’ll listen. They’ll say, ‘OK, Ms. Dyson, I’m finnin to go,’ because they don’t want to get in trouble.”
Dyson also comes into contact with young people selling drugs and guarding gang turf, some of them kids she once ushered into school every morning.
“They might be doing their thing and they say, ‘Move back, here comes Ms. Dyson,’ ” she said. “They’ll give me that respect. And then I just tell them, ‘Be safe. Stay out of trouble.’ And they usually say, ‘OK, Mama. We got you.’ You know, they move on.”