CHICAGO (CNN) — A 15-year-old Chicago girl walking to her high school in pre-dawn darkness was hit on the head, dragged between two houses to a yard and raped, police said, with the assault taking place just a half block away from one of the city’s “Safe Passage” school routes especially for students.
The incident put another spotlight on the city’s problem with violence. Just this fall, local officials pledged that an expanded Safe Passages program — with its big yellow signs above sidewalks patrolled during key times by paid, trained workers — would be a sanctuary for children walking to and from school.
Local authorities noted, however, that the 15-year-old victim was walking to school Tuesday morning a half hour before her nearby Safe Passage route was staffed with patrols.
The girl was in serious condition Thursday in a hospital.
A resident found the girl half-naked and bleeding from the head on a snowy walkway on the side of his home. She lay for about two hours in the cold before she was discovered. She was conscious but barely moving when she was found, authorities said.
“Just opening up the door, and take a morning sweep of the sidewalks and to find something like that is just shocking,” said Michael Klockowski, the resident on the city’s Northwest Side who found the school girl. The snow outside his home was still stained Thursday.
Parents and residents are now questioning the safety of the program in a city that has been plagued by gun-related murders.
“Everybody is scared. It can happen to any of our kids, so everybody is worried,” Ada Cambron, a parent, said Thursday. “In the morning, you never see police walking around and stuff like that.”
When told that police officers were patrolling the Safe Passages on foot on Thursday, Cambron acknowledged the police presence but noted it took the rape of a student to prompt the patrol.
“It shouldn’t be that way,” she said.
City and school officials doubled the number of Safe Passage routes this fall to accommodate more children being forced to walk greater distances to school because the school system closed a record 48 elementary schools amid a $1 billion budget shortfall. About 12,000 students are attending new schools this year because of the budget crisis, and many of them must walk through some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods.
Another parent, Sharon Rafael, said she liked the program but was skeptical of its monitoring as she stood outside a school with her small daughter and held a pink “Pretty Princess Puzzles” book.
“I think it works, but it just needs a little bit more security on it,” Rafael said. “Like, OK, you can patrol it right now, but later on, like in a few weeks, they’ll forget about it. And they won’t be around anymore.”
Ariel Reboyras, the alderman representing the area where the assault occurred, defended the Safe Passage program. The student rape occurred about 6 a.m. when it was still dark outside.
“We can’t say it was a result of a problem with Safe Passage, but we know that it’s not supposed to happen,” the alderman said.
Police were still searching Thursday for a suspect.
–CNN’s George Howell reported from Chicago, and Michael Martinez wrote and reported from Los Angeles.