As violence soars, CPS must offer student activities ‘very seriously’ – and says teens shouldn’t be all to blame

As debate rages over Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s restrictive new policies for teens this summer in response to a weekend shooting at Millennium Park that killed a Chicago public school student, district leaders say ‘they were focused on connecting children with safe spaces and engaging programming.

School officials said students “are not responsible for anything that happens” and should feel welcome anywhere in the city. They said the district, in partnership with the Lightfoot office, is working to make this a reality in the coming months.

Lightfoot’s policies have been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, families and activists. The mayor announced that children would not be allowed in Millennium Park after 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday without a “responsible adult.” And she moved a summer curfew from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. for minors – although some research has shown curfews for teenagers are not effective safety measures. The changes are in a new executive order that calls on Chicago police to “immediately increase law enforcement” while leaving loopholes for teens returning home from ticketed events.

The moves come after a weekend in which 16-year-old Seandell Holliday was shot and killed in the busy park. As has been the case for the past few summers, the shooting occurred as Chicago police followed groups of teenagers through the city’s downtown area.

During a visit this week to his school, Gary Comer College Prep, Seandell’s mother, Chanell, told WBEZ, “It’s tough. It’s so difficult for me. She said she didn’t want her son to go downtown on Saturday night because she didn’t think it would be safe.

His friends said he was taking part in a “trend” – large gatherings organized on social media with the aim of meeting somewhere to have fun. Describing him as a quiet but caring and funny child, they said Seandell usually kept to himself and did not participate in gatherings. And they said they also usually avoided them because they hadn’t heard that they ended badly.

“Most trends that most people have been in is always a fight or a shootout,” 15-year-old Demetrius Walker-Hill told WBEZ. “People want to go out and have fun. Nobody wants to go out worrying about how they’re going to get home.

Many of his classmates said they were afraid to leave home, let alone go downtown. They therefore doubt that Lightfoot’s new policies will make a difference and noted that in the past curfews have been applied unevenly anyway.

Bogdana Chkoumbova, head of education at CPS, said student engagement this summer is a priority and it’s important that children feel welcome and safe in the city.

“We take this very seriously,” Chkoumbova told the Chicago Sun-Times in an interview Wednesday. “Our children are not responsible for everything that happens. We really want to hire them because they are looking for social opportunities after two very difficult years.

“We have a very simple process for schools to basically tell us what they want to offer, from an enrichment program to a tutoring program or whatever, and we fund it.”

Some schools have already requested “very extensive summer programming,” she said, and those offerings are updated on an online dashboard and interactive map. More information is available at cps.edu/campaigns/summer-programs.

There are also the usual Park District programs, and Chkoumbova said 15,000 students applied for One Summer Chicago, an initiative that connects kids with summer jobs. The town hall also announced on Wednesday the launch of the “My CHI. My Future.” mobile app to help teens find summer programs, events, and jobs.

Pedro Martinez, the CEO of CPS, said officials were working with schools in the weeks leading up to summer vacation to “get kids involved in these programs now so we know they will be engaged and safe.

“These are conversations that we just need to keep having,” he said in an interview. “This will be my first summer here in Chicago in this role, so I think I’m going to learn a lot. But I know enough right now that we need to have these conversations now before the summer rolls around.

Martinez said he wants principals and teachers to ask students what kind of summer programs they would like to see and help identify gaps. These discussions and reflections on the mayor’s new policies will help inform the city.

“We will work in partnership with the city. For us, it’s about making sure kids really feel welcome in any part of our city. But also that they feel they can be safe,” Martinez said. “And so we’re already working with our principals now to have those kinds of conversations, and frankly, we’re going to bring those comments back to the city, you know, what our students are saying.”

Contributor: Susie An

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