As debate rages over Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new, restrictive policies for teenagers this summer in response to a weekend shooting at Millennium Park that left a Chicago Public Schools student dead, district leaders said they’re focused on connecting students with safe spaces and engaging programming.
The schools officials said students are “not to blame for everything that is going on” and should feel welcome anywhere in the city. They said the district, in partnership with Lightfoot’s office, is working to make that a reality in the months to come.
Lightfoot’s policies have been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, families and activists. The mayor announced kids won’t be allowed in Millennium Park after 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays without a “responsible adult.” And she moved a summer curfew up from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. for minors — though some research has shown teen curfews aren’t effective safety measures. The changes are in a new executive order that calls for Chicago police to “immediately increase enforcement” while leaving loopholes for teens heading home from ticketed events.
The moves come after a weekend in which 16-year-old Seandell Holliday was fatally shot in the busy park. As has been the case over the past few summers, the shooting happened while Chicago police were tracking groups of teenagers around the city’s downtown.
During a visit this week to his school, Gary Comer College Prep, Seandell’s mother Chanell told WBEZ, “This is hard. This is so hard for me.” She said she didn’t want her son to go downtown Saturday night.
His classmates said he was taking part in a “trend” — a large gathering organized on social media for the purpose of meeting up somewhere to have fun. But they said they avoid them because they have only heard of them ending badly.
“Most of the trends that most people have been at, it’s always a fight or shooting,” Demetrius Walker-Hill, 15, told WBEZ. “People want to go outside and have fun. No one wants to go outside worrying about how they gonna make it home.”
His classmates said they were scared to leave home, let alone go downtown. So they doubt whether Lightfoot’s new policies will make a difference, and noted that in the past curfews have seen spotty enforcement.
Bogdana Chkoumbova, CPS’ education chief, said engaging students this summer is a priority, and it’s important children feel welcome and safe in the city.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” Chkoumbova told the Sun-Times in an interview Wednesday. “Our kids are not to blame for everything that is going on. We definitely want to engage them because they’re looking for social opportunities after two very tough 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 to anything else, and we are funding it.”
Some schools have already put in requests for “really extensive summer programming,” she said, and those offerings are being 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 have applied for One Summer Chicago, an initiative that connects kids with summer jobs. City Hall also announced Wednesday the launch of the “My CHI. My Future.” mobile app to help teens find summer programs, events and jobs.
Pedro Martinez, the CPS CEO, said officials are working with schools in the weeks leading up to summer break to “get children involved in those programs now so that we know they’ll be engaged and safe.
“These are conversations that we need to just continue to have,” 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 gets here.”
Martinez said he wants principals and teachers to ask students about the type of summer programs they’d like to see and help identify gaps. Those discussions, and thoughts on the mayor’s new policies, will help inform the city.
“We’re going to work in partnership with the city. For us it’s making sure children really do feel that, one, they’re 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 that feedback back to the city, you know, what our students are saying.”