The morning trip to school for dozens of teenagers here had all the normal signs: bleary eyes, oversized jackets zipped up against the chill, the seemingly endless wait for the bus.
But there was tension underlying the routine: The trip was under the watchful eyes of parents, an alderman, a principal and police.
The escort to and from Crane Tech High School this week, dubbed "Operation Safe Passage" is just one of the ways Chicago is dealing with a wave of violence that has stunned the city.
Since September, 20 Chicago Public Schools students have been killed, 18 by gunfire. Last school year, 24 of the more than 30 students killed were shot to death, compared with between 10 and 15 fatal shootings in the years before.
"The loss of life that we've seen among our young people is ... devastating," said school district spokesman Michael Vaughn. "This gun nonsense has reached a crisis level."
The number of violent deaths involving students in the nation's third-largest school district has increased so dramatically in the last two years that police are increasing school patrols and soon will be the first department in the country with live access to thousands of security cameras mounted outside — and inside — schools.
Chicago Public Schools is one of the only urban districts to track how many students are killed by guns — though none of the slayings have occurred on school property.
Nationally, homicide was the second-leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24 in 2004, and of those killed, 81 percent were killed with a firearm, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chicago's overall homicide rate, like that in other major cities, dropped to a record low in 2007. But the murders that do occur are hitting young people hard, frightening students and parents, and prompting everyone from Mayor Richard M. Daley to activists to call for action.
Operation Safe Passage began this week. It provides escorts for students from the ABLA Homes public housing development to Crane Tech High School. Many of the 120 students from the housing project have not been to school since March 7 because they fear retaliation after a reputed gang member from ABLA shot and killed another student who lived on a rival gang's turf.
Three of Michelle Johnson's children attend Crane, and she says the escorts help — somewhat.
"For right now, I feel it's kinda safe," said Johnson, who added that she is willing to take her children to school every day until the situation improves.
Police to have access to school cameras
Daley recently announced a new resource for police — access to the 4,500 security cameras mounted inside and outside about 200 elementary and high schools.
The real-time video from the cameras once was available only to school officials, but now police and the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications will be able to see it as well. Daley said indoor cameras will be used only in emergencies.
Daley also has rolled back the curfew times for minors by half an hour, to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.
Many observers insist the issue isn't a school problem but a symptom of overall violence in the city. In fact, students in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods say school — with metal detectors, private security guards and uniformed police officers — is the one place they feel safe.
Antigun activists and officials say the violence highlights a dangerous reality: Arguments among young people that used to be resolved with fistfights now end in gunfire.
"They're just shooting out of rage," said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, an outspoken priest on the city's South Side whose church is putting up a $2,500 reward for information each time a CPS student is killed. The Chicago Board of Education has promised to match with its own $2,500 reward.
Tio Hardiman, executive director of the anti-violence group CeaseFire, said many young people consider a firearm their only protection. The way to reduce violence is to stop petty arguments among young people before they escalate into gunfire, Hardiman said.
"A lot of young guys in the community, first of all, would rather get caught with a gun than without a gun," Hardiman said. "There's a need a dire need for more conflict resolution training."