In the aftermath of a ninth grader’s death, parents, teachers and elected officials continue to mull how to keep young people safe as they make the return to in-person learning and start navigating the city again.
Over the last couple of weeks, strategies for doing so have placed focus back on Safe Passage programs that thrived in portions of the District in the years and months leading up to the pandemic.
Some Safe Passage proponents, like At-large State Board of Education Representative Jacque Patterson, emphasized the need for school officials, violence interrupters and other involved parties to anticipate the escalation of conflicts that started online during the pandemic.
“A lot of communication happened over social media that precipitated activities that can play out in public and charter schools,” said Patterson, KIPP DC’s chief community engagement & growth officer.
“We have to understand what that is and be ready to address it,” Patterson added. “Everyone’s making sure that school is safe [from] COVID, but we forgot about the human aspect. I don’t think we prepared emphasis on that area.”
Young People, Other Community Members Weigh In
As of Aug. 27, school-aged children are a key element of the District’s 129 homicides.
One of the most recent deaths to hit the city involved a KIPP DC College Preparatory student, Kemon Payne, stabbed to death by a 16-year-old near the bus stop in front of his school on the third day of classes.
Kemon’s death took place three years after another KIPP student died in a violent assault at NoMa-Gallaudet U metro station.
In response to the Aug. 18 event, KIPP DC College Preparatory, based in Northeast, closed its campus for a day and made counselors virtually available to grieving students.
Days later, adolescent trauma and disjointed violence prevention efforts continued to dominate conversations centered on Safe Passage legislation currently making its way through the D.C. Council.
If it passes, The Safe Passage to School Expansion Act of 2021, introduced by At large D.C. Councilmember Christina Henderson (I), would establish an Office of Safe Passage that reports to the District mayor.
This office would coordinate and organize the currently existing means of safe passage for students traveling between home and school in the morning, throughout the school day, and well into the evening.
In addition to providing buses for students living in areas with the fewest transportation options, the legislation would fund grants for community-based, nonprofit organizations working in the violence prevention space.
The council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, chaired by D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), has been scheduled to deliberate on The Safe Passage to School Expansion Act in October.
On Aug. 25, Southeast residents and community leaders who visited R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast questioned Cheh about aspects of the legislation, which she and four of her colleagues co-sponsored.
Community members later broke into groups, read through the legislation line by line, and drafted recommendations they compiled into a single document.
The conversation with Cheh, along with public testimony from Ward 8 resident Jasmine Smith, inspired commentary and additional questions.
Jasmine, a tenth grader who attends Wilson, recounted often witnessing police officers on the Metro respond to physical altercations during her two-hour commute across the city.
As it relates to the new school year, Jasmine said she’s concerned about how adults will mitigate conflicts that might arise inside or nearby one of D.C.’s most populous high schools.
“If there’s someone on the bus doing something violent, people don’t [only] need to resolve the conflict, but be taken off the bus entirely so they can erase the tension,” Jasmine told The Informer.
“We’re coming into a space where I have to learn who to be around and who to stay away from.”
A Long Time Coming
In 2017, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education designated Anacostia, Congress Heights, and Columbia Heights metro stations, along with the Good Hope Road corridor in Southeast as areas of priority for Safe Passage programs.
Schools in those areas often had adult volunteers from the community who watch young people leave campus and guide them along different points leading to their neighborhood.
The Office of the Student Advocate also coordinated Safe Passage community meetings that brought together students, parents, school administrators and elected officials to discuss youth violence prevention over the long term.
Discussions in the D.C. Council about Safe Passage ran parallel to the events unfolding in the streets. Some people, like Ward 8 parent Tara Brown, participated in public hearings where she expressed a desire to see transportation options exclusive to young people.
On Aug. 25, she endorsed The Safe Passage to School Expansion Act as a means of ensuring student safety at a precarious time.
“You can’t talk about the importance of education if you don’t care if they make it to school,” Brown said at the Safe Passage forum.
“This bill is a long time coming. I don’t want anyone to tell me about money. We [have to] prioritize the things that are important [like] mental and physical health — the whole child.”