Do punks and gangs run Chicago's schools?
You'd get that idea listening to parents and activists protesting the closings of 61 school buildings by Chicago Public Schools. The schools should remain open, protesters say, because kids will be caught in the crossfire of gang harassment, recruitment and warfare if they are forced to attend another school.
Preschool teacher Suzie McNeal at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School typified the complaint in an interview on "The CBS Evening News": "They're going to fight up and down the street going to school, coming to school. It's going to be chaotic and a mess," she said.
The fear is real, and I'm with the thousands of parents who shudder at the thought of their children getting caught in the middle of gang violence. Children, their parents and teachers shouldn't have to live like this. For some, this is reason enough for their school to stay open.
A school embraces the neighborhood; sometimes schools define a community. The reach of Boone Elementary School and, for us Catholics, St. Timothy's, delineated my childhood neighborhood on the North Side. As a kindergartner, I walked the six blocks to and from school without fear of gang violence. It was my right.
Decades ago, social planners had come up with the cockamamie scheme to bus students out of their neighborhood schools to distant ones to achieve racial "balance." White parents were up in arms, opposing the idea because it would ship their children out of their neighborhood schools, often into minority areas. Their protests were portrayed as racially inspired, as indeed some were.
But a goodly number of protesters also were genuine in their defense of neighborhood schools. They were the community's anchor, creating bonds that are so essential for self-identification in the amorphous and impersonal big city. Today's protesters, no matter what their race, should be allowed the same feelings.
But, the battle is lost.
As painful as it is, CPS has no other choice if it wants to preserve and build a vital school system. Burdened with a huge deficit and facing declining state funding, CPS has no other choice but to close and consolidate its least-used and poorest-performing schools.
The closed schools are concentrated on the West and South sides not because of racism, but because people are fleeing the neighborhoods they serve. And why shouldn't they flee? They are driven out by violence and a basic human need for security, for themselves and their children.
Which brings us back to the punks and the gangs. They shouldn't run our schools. They already are running and ruining too many lives.
This, then, is the challenge for residents whose neighborhood schools are closing. From challenge comes opportunity: to work together to ensure their children's safety. To unite as a community to create neighborhood watches. To take power into their own hands. Every parent or resident who can should line school routes, to demonstrate their commitment to the children. To show that they can control their own lives.
They can join and help strengthen the Safe Passage program that organizes church programs, nonprofit organizations and community groups to send workers to watch the routes children take to and from school.
So, too, the Chicago Teachers Union should not let students and parents down. Put some of the same energy union leaders have deployed against the school administration to help protect students. Join with parents to create corridors of safety.
Such action takes courage and competency. But if parents and residents can organize to protest the closing of their schools, then they can put that passion to work to carve out safe passages for children. If they fail in this, then I dare say it's not much of a community.
And if they fail, maybe the state should send in the National Guard to line those routes, so there is no question that civil society, and not the gangs, runs things.
This column also appears in the Chicago Tribune