Safe Passage routes rife with sex offenders
BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK Education Reporter September 28, 2013 12:10AM
A Safe Passage sign is posted near a building on Washington Blvd., where a registered sex offender lives along the route for children walking to De Priest Elementary School on Chicago's West Side. | Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: October 30, 2013 6:02AM
When children walk the stretch along Montrose Avenue through the heart of Uptown to Brennemann Elementary School, they already deal with violence and gang tensions.
But like children at most of the other schools that received new Safe Passage routes, another potential danger lurks: registered sex offenders, especially those deemed predators who victimized children.
A Sun-Times analysis found that 48 of 53 Safe Passage routes at schools that took in children from closed schools have sex offenders registered along them or within 1/8 mile — a full city block. Five routes have 10 or more, and 17 have more than five, according to that analysis of the routes and the Illinois State Police sex offender registry.
With about 2,700 sex offenders registered in Chicago with State Police, some of them were bound to cross Safe Passage routes. The analysis shows that number to be 278, or about 10 percent of the city’s total.
Just five of the 53 paths have no sex offenders along them. Safe Passage was designed by Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Police Department, with input from school communities, to protect children commuting along designated routes lined with community workers in yellow vests, Chicago Police, firefighters and other city workers.
Chicago Police reviewed each route proposed by CPS, as well, to check against dangers, department spokesman Adam Collins said.
In early spring and again in the summer, “[Chicago Police] officers visited every sex offender who was on or near a route to make sure they were in compliance with the law,” Collins said. “And where they weren’t, alerts were issued and arrests would be made.”
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said school and police officials took a “holistic approach” to routes, trying to keep children on main streets as much as possible where there “was the most foot traffic and community engagement to watch children on their route to school.” In cases where sex offenders abounded along the routes, other factors such as convenience to children and main thoroughfare streets played into the final route placement decision.
CPS also is in daily contact with vendors and police about the routes, ready to adjust them as necessary, she said; so far, there have been no incidents reported along the routes.
Nine convicted sex offenders live along the route for Brennemann Elementary, 4251 N. Clarendon Ave. Eight of those offenders were convicted of sex crimes against children, with victims as young as 4, according to the State Police registry that lists these offenders as “sexual predators.”
Three of them live in the same building on Montrose Avenue; yellow reflective Safe Passage signs are visible from the balconies and the front door.
A sign just inside that security door, which stayed open on a recent afternoon, advises “all visitors to this building must present a valid Illinois state ID to the desk clerk. He will hold it for the length of the visit.”
One offender was 37 at the time he molested an 8-year-old child. That was in California. He’s now 50 and is listed by Illinois State Police as a sexual predator.
Another was 54 when he abused a 14-year-old in McHenry County. He, too, is considered a sexual predator. So is a man who was 55 when he exposed himself to and kissed 4- and 5-year-old neighbors.
None of them wanted to speak to the Sun-Times, they said through the building’s manager.
The building’s clerk said he likes the added police presence around the complex that holds 120 or 130 occupants. He didn’t seem to know that some of his residents were on the sex offender registry.
Neither did two moms dropping kids off at Brennemann earlier this week.
“If there is that many, you think they would have taken that into consideration,” said Misty Lofton, who often skips the official route, preferring quieter side streets, when accompanying her two children on a 10-minute walk to school.
“This is crazy,” she added, looking at photographs of the men.
Lots of kids walk themselves to school, DeErica Munuz said.
“You never know if they are looking out the window, from their car, from a garage,” Munuz said.
“Or walking next to you,” Lofton said, recognizing a gentleman on the registry whom she saw while walking to Brennemann.
“You just never know,” Munuz said.
But May Hall knew. Hall walks her 6-year-old son, Tellyon Washington, and her sister’s 6-year-old son back and forth to Brennemann from her home several blocks away on Broadway via Montrose Avenue, passing four registered child predators’ homes on each trip.
Hall has looked at her neighborhood’s registry to see who’s around. It’s part of the reason she walks both ways with the children every day, despite the added — and welcome — crossing guards and police.
“I just try to keep my kids as safe as possible,” she said on Montrose Avenue. “By them having the Safe Passage program, they are out here to look out for the children. They have good hours. So far they’re looking out. I really can’t complain.”
Cather Elementary School’s route has a whopping 80 sex offenders nearby, mostly due to a shelter in the 200 block of South Sacramento, where 70 are registered.
And 15 offenders live along the route to DePriest, 139 S. Parkside Ave., in the South Austin community. None answered their doors one recent morning, and none responded to business cards left in their doors requesting a call back.
But a few doors down from one offender, at Exquisite Design barber shop, 5457 W. Madison, someone recognized the neighbor from a registry photograph listing him as a sexual predator. Court records state that he abused a 19-year-old when he was 47.
“Aw, Jerry’s a sex offender?” one client called out.
The barber, who only gives his name as “Tone,” said the man mostly keeps to himself. And Tone and others in the shop are frequently out front keeping an eye on the kids who walk by.
“We’ll have to watch them,” Tone said.
Phillip Jackson, who heads the Black Star Project overseeing routes for Brennemann, McCutcheon, McPherson and Chappell elementary schools, said his workers were trained to report suspicious people back to headquarters.
“We tell them they have to be on notice for everything, not just the possibility of sex offenders: Street gangs, abandoned buildings, stray animals,” he said. “Our workers are trained to monitor interactions between children and adults. Not only to monitor interactions between children and adults but pay particular attention to adults who are in the vicinity or adults who are straying or straggling. That attracts us.”
Harold Davis, director of American Enterprise that handles routes for Cather, Earle and Curtis elementary schools, said he asked the overnight shelter near Cather to enforce its 6 a.m. dismissal time before children walk to school.
“That gave me leeway to tell the workers they’d be out of there by 6 a.m., but if you see anything strange, keep your eyes on them,” Davis said.
Felipe Conception lives several blocks south of the school, half a block from the official route, in a large apartment building. He’s considered a sexual predator, convicted in 2006 in Cook County of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a victim who was 14. He was 54 at the time of the incident.
“The school’s far away,” Conception, now 62, said from the doorway of the small apartment where he’s lived for the past 10 months, long before the routes were a glimmer in CPS’ eye. “I don’t bother anybody.”
Court records show that he satisfactorily completed his two years’ sex offender probation. But he’s still not allowed to be around children under 18 while he’s registered. Having the route placed so close to his home “doesn’t matter to me,” he said, repeating, “I’m not going to bother anybody.”
In fact, as far as he’s concerned, the Safe Passage route’s a plus for the neighborhood.
“There are so many police now crossing kids,” he said, “and that’s good.”
Contributing: Art Golab