Chicago children displaced by public school closings may be forced to step into the line of fire between warring street gangs as they walk to their new schools each day, a gang expert told a U.S. judge who will rule on a request that he stop planned closings in the nation's third largest school district.
Taking the stand for lawyers opposed to Chicago Public Schools' recent decision to shutter about 50 public elementary schools, John Hagedorn also testified that rival gangs already are posting warnings on Facebook for the incoming children from other neighborhoods to stay off their turf.
"It's already aggravating gang conflicts," he said about the pending closings. And if the closings go ahead, added the University of Illinois at Chicago professor, "It is likely a child will be shot and killed."
Gangs often are blamed for Chicago's high murder rate, which topped 500 in 2012 — the first time since 2008 it hit that mark. The murder rate has declined in 2013, with about 200 murders as of early July.
But recurring Chicago violence has made national news this year, especially after the shooting death of 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton about a mile from President Barack Obama's Chicago home.
Gang violence is more chaotic than ever as their hierarchies crumbled over the past decade, breaking down top-down control of 20 or 30 years ago, splintering gangs and leading to infighting within gangs, Hagedorn testified Wednesday.
"The old times where one gang controlled one neighborhood are gone," he said. "Those changes are what make it especially dangerous to children."
Closing so many schools at once was a bid to rescue an academically and financially failing system. Officials say the schools were underused and that closing them will save millions, improving schools overall.
But displaced students, Hagedorn said, will have difficulty grasping boundaries in an increasingly confusing patchwork of gang territories and will struggle to pick up on cues indicating gang violence might be imminent.
"When children have to cross gang borders, you are putting them in a situation where they are in the line of fire," he testified. "It creates a severe risk for children (going into) unfamiliar neighborhoods."
In response to such concerns, the district has said it will expand its Safe Passage program, which stations adults to stand watch along key school routes and then alert police of any problems.
But Hagedorn said he didn't believe that would eliminate the risk to students.
"There is no way someone walking with them will protect them from a bullet," he said.
City officials have said opponents of the closings have overstated gang threats posed to students. In addition to the plans to expand the Safe Passage project, officials have also said they will invest more cameras, metal detectors and other security devises inside the schools taking in new students.
Lawyers for the Chicago Teachers Union and parents seeking a temporary injunction halting the closures started calling witnesses first on Tuesday. They called their last witness Wednesday afternoon.
School board attorneys were planning to call two days' worth of witnesses, some of whom were expected to address claims about putting children at higher risk of gang violence.
Also Wednesday, Chicago's City Council approved measures beefing up its assault weapons ban and stiffening fines and potential jail time for those convicted of gun-related offenses in certain areas, including around school grounds and along Safe Passage school routes.