Expanding the Mission of “Safe Routes to School” as Kids Return to Class

It’s hard to believe summer is almost over. In many places, the weather was so mild it seems like it never quite started. But kids are already going back to school.

Crosswalks and adult supervision are two ingredients in keeping kids safe from both traffic and violence. ##https://www.dot.ny.gov/safe-routes-to-school##NY DOT##

Crosswalks and adult supervision are two ingredients in keeping kids safe from both traffic and violence. NY DOT

While the weather has been cool, temperatures have reached a boiling point on many of our nation’s streets. In many communities, violence is very much on people’s minds as kids return to school, following incidents like the rash of shootings in Chicago over the July 4th weekend and the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Last week, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership teamed up with Generation Progress, The League of Young Voters Education Fund, the Million Hoodies Movement, and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans to hold a Twitter town hall with the hashtag #Back2SaferSchools. Generation Progress kicked things off with this sobering thought:

Q1: In 2015, gun violence will be leading cause of death for Millennials. What can communities do to ensure students go #Back2SaferSchools?

— Generation Progress (@genprogress) August 20, 2014

There are many ways to address this problem. But as Keith Benjamin of the SRTS National Partnership says, “Place-making plays a pivotal role in combating violence.”

Late last year, the Partnership released “Using Safe Routes to School to Combat the Threat of Violence” [PDF]. It weaves together in-school conflict resolution programs and anti-bullying work with the group’s regular program of walking school buses and infrastructure improvements.

“In some communities, the danger of violence and crime discourages children from walking to school and keeps people off the street, limiting physical activity and restricting errands and trips,” the report begins.

With 850,000 children living in “hot zones” for gang violence and 5 percent of high school students reporting that they missed at least one day of school a month because of fear of violence at school or on their way there, it’s clear that, in Benjamin’s words, “you can’t have safe routes if your communities aren’t safe.”

Benjamin notes the case of 17-year-old Marcel Pearson, killed July 4 in Chicago, two days before he was to start freshman orientation at Western Illinois University. He was walking in the park with friends, just blocks from home, when he was shot. Benjamin sees the stories of victims like Pearson, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown as examples of young people being unsafe in their own places, unsafe doing the simple act of walking.

The Partnership sees many possibilities to combine efforts to curtail violence and improve pedestrian safety. Pursuing these overlapping goals in tandem can lower the temperature and keep kids safe on their way to a new school year.

“Safe Routes to School is about finding out where safety challenges are and where the opportunities are to get more kids walking to school,” said Margo Pedroso of the Partnership. “Is traffic the problem, or is it violence and threats? It depends on the community.”

She notes that the Partnership has branched out “to be more than just focused on trips to and from school,” and is focusing more broadly on getting kids outside and active. For example, the Partnership advocates for shared use resources, like school playgrounds, being open on weekends and after school. “But if you don’t address violence issues, no one is going to go to those places,” Pedroso said. “Parents are going to keep kids safe in their houses and apartments.”