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School closings mean students must traverse new gang landscape, prof testifies

Updated: August 19, 2013 3:38PM

Chicago Public Schools’ decision to close 49 elementary schools makes it “more likely that a child will be shot and killed,” a professor who has studied gang culture for 30 years testified in federal court Wednesday.

University of Illinois at Chicago Professor John Hagedorn warned that the planned closures are “already having an effect” on student safety, because gangs are taunting their rivals on Facebook that they “better not come into our neighborhood” when transferring students are forced to cross gang boundaries to attend new schools.

Hagedorn was hired to testify on behalf of parents backed by the Chicago Teachers Union who are trying to convince a judge to halt the school closures.

The parents allege in a pair of lawsuits that the closures unfairly impact black and special needs students and should be delayed for a year or stopped entirely.

On Wednesday, the second day of a four-day hearing, Hagedorn told Judge John Lee that today’s gang violence is carried out between small neighborhood factions and is “spontaneous and unpredictable,” making it harder to protect children than it was in the past.

Hagedorn displayed gang maps, showing how students would have to cross gang boundaries to get to their new schools and arguing that CPS doesn’t have an effective safety plan in place. For example, he said, children transferred from Pope Elementary to Johnson Elementary in North Lawndale will “literally be walking down a line of fire” on Albany Avenue, where the New Breeds have clashed with rival gangs.

CPS’ “Safe Passage” program, which pays community groups to chaperone children, won’t “protect them from bullets,” he added.

But under questioning from attorneys for the Chicago Board of Education, Hagedorn conceded that he was unaware that no students were hurt after four elementary schools were closed last year, and that he could not say how many students already cross gang boundaries on their way to school.

Later Wednesday, parent Sherise McDaniel testified how she had urged CPS to save her son’s under-enrolled and predominantly black school, Manierre Elementary, by allowing students from the nearby, but overcrowded and mostly white Lincoln Park Elementary School to use some of its classrooms.

Though Manierre was spared closure, McDaniels’ attorneys say CPS’s refusal to adopt her plan or to redraw boundaries at other condemned black schools is evidence of racism.

Wednesday’s testimony ended with heated exchanges between Markay Winston, the CPS official who oversees special needs services, and plaintiff’s attorney Thomas Geoghegan, about whether the closure decision in May left enough time to plan for special needs students who need extra help adapting to new schools.

Winston testified that CPS is “making a great effort to put in place plans to make sure the needs of those individual students are provided for,” adding that those plans include efforts to reassure autistic students by rearranging classroom furniture so that it mirrors the layout at their old schools.

But she refused to say if transferring special needs students know yet who their new teachers will be, and said the teams of parents, social workers and teachers who are legally required to write individual education plans for special needs students don’t have to adapt them to account for school closures — an argument the plaintiffs dispute.

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