Safe school zones: crime-weary neighborhoods pray for a sign 

When gunshots were heard outside a Rogers Park grade school--the guns fired by drug dealers, some barely in their teens--nearby residents were convinced that they had to take control of their community.

So, working through the Rogers Park Tenants Committee, they put together an antidrug campaign that called for education, rehabilitation, and cooperation with police. Of the city they asked very little--just that it hang a few sturdy metal signs outside the local schools and parks warning dealers that "criminal penalties are severely increased for gang recruitment and the possession, use and sales of drugs and weapons."

They first made that sign request in the summer of 1988. Over 17 months have passed and they--and other community groups throughout the city--are still waiting for the signs. No one knows when Mayor Daley and the City Council will get around to buying them.

"We know the signs won't stop all the drug activity, but they make a statement," says Felipa Farmilant, a member of the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. "They send a message to the gang members and dealers that we--the responsible adults--control the neighborhood, not you. It's not like we're asking for a lot. It would only cost about $35,000 for all the signs. The city wastes more than that on council committees."

The call for what activists term "safe school zone" signs goes back to antidrug efforts initiated several years ago by the National Training and Information Center, a national coalition of community groups that's based in Chicago. Given the increase in drug-related crimes, ranging from robbery to murder, in the summer of 1988 NTIC organized a citywide coalition called Communities Linked for Education and Action Against Narcotics (CLEAN for short).

"Unfortunately, drugs and drug-related crimes are bigger than any one or two communities," says Jaci Feldman, project director of NTIC's antidrug program. "We need a citywide approach."

One clear, simple proposal was to post the signs. "The state had toughened the laws dealing with drugs and weapon activity within 1,000 feet of a school, so we felt everyone should know it," says Harry Armstrong, an organizer for the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. "You should let the criminals know that you intend to crack down."

In the fall of 1988, 31st Ward Alderman Raymond Figueroa introduced an ordinance that would require the signs to be posted "1,000 feet away from the property comprising any school on every public street leading into any school." It was referred to the Committee on Police, Fire and Municipal Institutions, chaired by Seventh Ward Alderman William Beavers. The committee approved Figueroa's proposal, meaning that it should have advanced then to the full council. Only it never did.

"It's still in committee because I didn't report it out," says Beavers. "That's my right as chairman."

When asked why he hadn't reported it out, Beavers replies "Because we haven't found the money for the signs. It would cost $1 million--probably half a million as a minimum--to erect those signs. Where's the money going to come from? I talked to the Budget Department, and they say they're working to find the revenue."

According to Beavers, if the signs were made by city workers, they would cost about $60 apiece. But last year CLEAN struck a deal with state correctional officials, who offered to have prisoners make the signs for $11.50 apiece. CLEAN now sells a small number of these signs on a limited basis. No one is certain how many signs would be required to conform with Figueroa's bill. But local activists point out that at $11.50 a sign the city could get nearly 3,500 of them for $40,000.

"I don't know why Beavers or city officials quote that old price; we told them about our deal with the state," says Feldman. "We had a press conference with state officials and we invited Daley and Beavers. But they didn't attend."

However, one city department did order some signs from CLEAN. Only problem is--they haven't picked them up.

"The Department of Human Services ordered 200 signs to send to 50 schools with high gang problems," says Feldman. "They ordered them in December, and we've had them for a week, and they still haven't picked them up. They haven't paid for them yet, either. It's getting kind of silly." Feldman points out that the city doesn't even know what color the signs are: "There was an article in the Sun-Times, and [in it the city] called the signs orange. They're not orange. They're gold and black. For a while the city didn't want them to be gold and black because, they said, 'Those are gang colors.' We said, 'No, those are the colors the state uses for warning signs, and who cares what the gangs use? We're taking those colors back.'"

Despite the order from the Department of Human Services, opposition to the signs may be hardening. In particular, Beavers is peeved at CLEAN for demonstrating outside his neighborhood ward office.

"They came down to my office all the way from the north side to intimidate me," says Beavers. "I told them that we couldn't find the money and they would just have to wait. I'm not even sure we need those signs. The penalties against drug dealing near a school are already a law, so why post the signs? Signs don't deter drug dealers. You can put a sign up saying 'No loitering,' and there are still loiterers. Right? You got signs up all around a bus stop saying 'No parking,' and people still park there. Right? And these are the good citizens doing the illegal parking. I know what the drug dealers would do to your signs. Those signs would disappear within a week."

His attitude only infuriates community activists.

"This man Beavers, he doesn't know what he's talking about," says Jim Hobson, supervisor of Kiwanis Playground, a public park at 7631 N. Ashland. "The signs would only complement police work. Police can't do everything on their own."

Kiwanis Playground is located in the only section of Rogers Park that juts north of Howard Street. "This is a very congested neighborhood," says Hobson. "We have thousands of kids, and only one elementary school [Gale] and one park, which are across the street from one another. That's it. These are the only two outlets for the whole area. Most of what does and doesn't go on rests on my shoulders and on the shoulders of Gale's principal. We have an awesome responsibility, and if these signs deter one crime, well, that's all right."

Hobson mentions the gunshots heard outside of Gale. And for a while, drug dealers operated freely in Kiwanis Playground.

"The dealers were right here, they weren't scared of a thing," says Hobson. "I said, 'Hey, you sell your drugs within 1,000 feet of the school and that's seven years minimum in jail.' I made my own signs and plastered the park with them. They got the message. Now they've moved further down the street. They're still out there. But at least they're not here, which is where the kids are. At least we've established a haven."

It was after Figueroa introduced his proposal that Daley was elected mayor, which heartened many of the activists. Daley the candidate had pledged to help communities fight drugs; he seemed a likely ally.

Groups from across the city sent him letters and petitions, endorsing Figueroa's proposal that signs be required. But they got no response. Finally, last month, several members of the Rogers Park Tenants Committee bumped into the mayor at an antidrug conference.

"There were about 15 of us, and we went right up to him and asked if he had been getting our correspondences," says Armstrong. "He said yes. And then he said we would be getting our signs. We asked, 'When?' But he didn't say."

Administration officials say Daley plans to have the signs installed as soon as he figures out exactly how many signs are needed and how much money they will cost.

"The mayor definitely supports the proposal," says Marj Halperin, a mayoral press spokesman. "We're trying to figure out how many signs are involved--that's never been determined. We'd like to have a council vote on the matter by the February 28 meeting."

If they don't make that deadline, the activists can force the issue by having Figueroa (or any other independent alderman) move to discharge the bill from committee--send it on to the council despite Beavers's opposition.

That maneuver would undoubtedly fail, because aldermen are reluctant to challenge a committee chairman's authority. But it would embarrass Daley--how would it look for an "antidrug" mayor to drag his feet on antidrug legislation?--and perhaps force him to support the bill at a later meeting.

"Voting to discharge only happens on rare occasions," says Rich Saks, Figueroa's chief aide. "We couldn't win, and that would only make a lot of aldermen upset. But really, when you think about it, what difference does it make if we lose on a discharge vote? They've been sitting on the proposal for a year anyway. They're not doing us any favors as it is. If we voted to discharge, it would force attention on the bill, which is being ignored."

In the meantime, CLEAN keeps selling its signs to community groups, churches, and schools. "We have 800 signs up all over the city, but we need a lot more to cover all the schools," says Feldman. "We don't want to be in the sign business. We've got a staffer handling this full-time, and we should be devoting our energies to other matters. The city should take this over."

As for the Rogers Park Tenants Committee, they thought about buying the signs directly from CLEAN and then decided against it.

"I don't think we should have to pay for the signs--we don't have a lot of money, and we have so many other needs," says Farmilant. "This is the city's responsibility. This is the kind of thing our tax dollars should go for. We're putting up our own signs. But they're made of cardboard; they get torn down real easy. The city could fasten the metal signs to poles where the gangs couldn't get to them. That's the way it should be done.

"You would think that the public officials would say: 'This is a little thing we can do to make your life better.' I guess they just don't see it that way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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