**FILE** Parent volunteers join D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at the start of the school year to help kids commute safely as part of the city’s Safe Passage Program. (WI photo)
**FILE** Parent volunteers join D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at the start of the school year to help kids commute safely as part of the city’s Safe Passage Program. (WI photo)

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As youth continue to succumb to gun violence, parents and community advocates across the District have expressed a need for a more robust, interconnected Safe Passage program that addresses the perils that schoolchildren face on their daily commutes. 

Even though workers with dark green vests have established their presence near several District public and public charter schools, some parents, like Talisa Sutton-Stephenson, said that Safe Passage requires stronger parent engagement and interagency collaboration.   

Years before the pandemic, Sutton-Stephenson participated in Safe Passage while serving as a manager of a program that provided housing for the families of youth in the court system. In her role, Sutton-Stephenson became involved in the grassroots organizing that not only placed Safe Passage personnel outside of public and public charter schools, but along major streets and near Metro bus stops and stations. 

Sutton-Stephenson said Safe Passage found much success when parents and community leaders interacted with the D.C. Office of the Student Advocate and shared information about neighborhood conflicts that spilled into District schools. 

“It was a clearly coordinated process with flyers and a toolkit,”  said Sutton-Stephenson, a Ward 8 resident and mother of four District students. 

“There was constant engagement and conversation around equity. Parents were educated and kept in the know about what the program would do. It was really coordinated. It came from a place of advocacy and was student focused.” 

Measuring the Progress of an Evolving Program 

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) first established the Safe Passage program in 2017 with a focus on priority areas where the District Department of Transportation, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and Metropolitan Police Department would coordinate violence prevention efforts. 

These priority areas, scattered across the city, had often been designated as places near public and public charter schools where fights broke out before and after school hours. 

Over the next couple of years, DME expanded the Safe Passage program to include the Safe Blocks and Safe Spots for Students initiatives. 

Through Safe Blocks, community-based organizations dispatched personnel to stand on the streets in priority areas, watch students and provide assistance should they experience bullying on their daily commute. 

As for the Safe Spots for Students initiative, neighborhood storefronts that participated in that program opened their establishments to students in need of an immediate refuge from physical harm. DME encouraged students to enter those storefronts to avoid physical altercations known to occur in the high priority areas.  

The Washington Informer counted among dozens of businesses east of the Anacostia River that participates in Safe Spots for Students. 

Some participating business owners, including one who requested anonymity, questioned the effectiveness of the Safe Spots for Students initiative. They said that DME didn’t offer much in terms of communication and training in how to handle situations where students needed protection. 

The business owner described the Safe Passage program, in its current state, as a quick fix for problems that run much deeper than what the D.C. government wants to acknowledge. The business owner, citing programs like local nonprofit The Creative School, said that young people need to be more involved in shaping policy related to their safety. 

“[We have to] talk to youth and stop creating things based on what we think is good for them,” the business owner said. “If we’re going to commit to youth, we have to show up for them and commit to them all the time like they’re our children. You have to have space and time for them. It’s not like checking off a box.” 

The D.C. Council Continues Attempt to Codify Safe Passage  

DME didn’t respond to The Informer’s inquiry about its current state, directives given to Safe Spots for Students participants and plans to coordinate efforts across the District. 

Throughout Safe Passage’s existence, elected officials and community organizers raised similar concerns about DME’s long-term dedication to the program. Efforts to codify Safe Passage stalled during the pandemic. The D.C. Council has since embarked on another attempt. 

In October, the D.C. Council Committee on Transportation and the Environment recommended that the Council approve the Safe Streets for Students Amendment Act.  The Committee of the Whole is scheduled to deliberate on that legislation on Dec. 6. 

This Safe Streets for Students Act, initially introduced last year as the Safe Passage to Schools Expansion Act, includes a provision that not only establishes the Office of Safe Passage, but clarifies that office’s responsibility in ensuring  young people get to and from school safely. 

If approved, the Safe Streets for Students Amendment Act would task the Office of Safe Passage with developing citywide and ward-specific strategies for student safety, and administering grants to the community-based organizations and hiring personnel. 

It will also fund shuttle bus services between both public and charter schools and the nearest Metro stations. 

While Ward 8 parent and community organizer LaJoy Johnson-Law expressed excitement about the legislation, she said that inadequate funding jeopardizes its longevity. Johnson-Law recounted seeing Safe Passage personnel near her daughter’s school in Northwest earlier this year. She said that experience sparked questions about how to bring the program back to pre-pandemic prominence. 

Achieving that goal, Johnson-Law said, requires properly training Safe Passage personnel and violence interrupters in trauma-informed conflict resolution, and increasing coordination between the community and all relevant District agencies to address, and ultimately prevent, conflicts that become into violent and life-threatening incidents. 

“We have to get a good amount of staff in the communities to implement Safe Passage to make sure there’s better synergy between schools, violence interrupters and legislators so we know what’s going on,” said Johnson-Law, a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, or PAVE. 

“If we see things aren’t working, we can’t go on as if everything’s okay,” Johnson-Law said. 

“Now we’re on double time because we’re trying to solve issues that were already happening in the community. With COVID, you’re dealing with an exasperation of those issues.” 

Reimagining Students’ Daily Commutes

Last week, a Metrobus was struck by gunfire during what authorities described as a road rage incident. On the morning of Nov. 17, bullets struck a man and young lady on a Metrobus near KIPP DC Legacy College Preparatory Public Charter School in Southeast. In October, a 15-year-old child was shot aboard a train at Petworth Metro Station in Northwest. 

Amid this recent uptick in violence on public transportation, Tara Brown’s daughter went to a school building for the first time since the pandemic started. Before then, Brown, a Ward 8 resident, kept her daughter in a virtual program offered by a local charter school. 

Since the start of the 2022-2023 school year, Brown’s daughter has spent anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours getting to and from school. Initially, Brown explored the possibility of her daughter taking Uber rides. However, the expenses proved too much of a burden. 

The high school sophomore has since grown accustomed to navigating the District on bus and Metro. Some of the strategies Brown discussed with her daughter include standing in the Metro station to wait for the bus if no one’s standing at the bus stop. Brown has also encouraged her daughter to kindly but sternly turn down strangers’ advances and only ride in crowded Metro cars. 

As the D.C. Council mulls over the Safe Streets for Students Amendment Act, Brown crosses her fingers for a situation where all students can ride a school bus on their daily commutes. 

Last year, she participated in a Safe Passage public forum at R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast where she expressed her frustrations with young people going to school on public transportation. 

In her most recent criticism of the Safe Passage program, Brown remains adamant about seeing that young people are protected from the dangers of city life while traveling through the District. 

“We need a school bus system that gets children to their school safely,” Brown said. 

“The Safe Passage program itself isn’t good enough, especially since it doesn’t sound like it’s operating the way it should be,” she added. 

“It’s a weak effort because our children are vulnerable on public transportation. They’re vulnerable to one another and strangers. I would like to see someone pick up my child to and from school.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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