Businesses along the Martin Luther King corridor in Southeast were recognized as Safe Spots at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education's Safe Passage Program kickoff on Aug. 23. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
Businesses along the Martin Luther King corridor in Southeast were recognized as Safe Spots at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education's Safe Passage Program kickoff on Aug. 23. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Several D.C. public and public charter schools, many of which had undergone significant renovations during the summer, opened their doors on Monday in anticipation of what administrators, teachers, and students hope will be a successful academic year without incident.

For a contingent of school personnel and small businesses in Southeast, realizing that goal involves tending to matters beyond those pristine buildings. With the continuation of Safe Passage and launch of the Safe Spots program comes the opportunity to keep students out of harm’s way along various points of their daily commutes to and from school.

“We’ve been training people that presence is important; [students] seeing the same people there to build up that level of trust and respect,” said Niya White, now in her ninth year as principal of Center City Public Charter School – Congress Heights.

Aug. 26 marked the first day of Center City PCS – Congress Heights’ 2019-2020 academic year, and the start of its fifth year quelling after-school violence.

In years past, to ensure that her students make it home safely, White and her colleagues facilitated what they called “the walking school bus.” She said this model, similar to the one done in Chicago, allowed them to accompany their elementary and middle school students along clearly visible routes to their homes.

As part of an effort to recruit parent and community members, the launch of a Center City PCS – Congress Heights Safe Passage recruitment page has been slated for early September. White also said she has also appealed to Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to monitor the corner of 6th Street and Randle Place, where an untold number of children and adults have been known to frustratingly wait for what she called an inconsistent W4 bus.

“Fewer events happen because a pair of eyes are always watching,” White said. “The Metropolitan Police Department and Metro Transit have been our greatest supporters. Sometimes, I don’t come back from the bus stop until after 5:30 p.m. I can spare that time. My educational colleagues can do it as well.”

Every day this academic year, nearly 5,000 young people leaving school and wearing uniforms of various colors will flood the 3100 Block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and its surrounding streets, either to patronize one of the local businesses, walk home, or catch one of the buses that will take them across the city.

Quantitative data and testimony collected from community members have marked various points in that area as potential incubators of physical conflict.

This year, Center City PCS – Congress Heights, KIPP DC Somerset College Preparatory, and other nearby Safe Passage participants will have nearly two dozen small businesses in Congress Heights and Anacostia as allies in their collective effort to prevent outbreaks of violence.

After conversations with student groups and local businesses, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education designated those “Safe Spots” as areas of refuge for students during after-school hours. This endeavor accompanies the launch of CarpooltoSchool as a means of organizing car, bike and walk pools this school year, and a partnership with LiveSpace to help students easily report emergencies to each other and law enforcement using a shared map.

DME has also collaborated with Richard Wright Public Charter School to support its community-led safe passage efforts.

“This is an important conversation around student safety,” D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee told a group of community members on Friday in front of MLK Deli, one of 23 safe spots.

“I always ask students if they feel safe at school,” he continued. “They talk about their challenges to and from school. We’re happy to be a part of the solution [and] thinking about proactive ways to get them home safely.”

Since 2017, the Safe Passage Program has allowed DME and the Office of the Student Advocate to proactively respond to incidents of violence that occurred along major corridors during the after-school hours. Some of those areas include Anacostia Metro Station, the Good Hope Southeast Corridor, Minnesota Avenue Metro Station in Northeast, and Columbia Heights Metro Station in Northwest.

Much of what DME unveiled this week culminated a series of working meetings with the School Safety and Safe Passage Working Group, comprised of school leaders, the District Department of Transportation, MPD, and other relevant parties. One of the first meetings in the 2019 calendar year took place at the FBR Boys & Girls Club at THEARC, just weeks after assailants gunned down 15-year-old Ballou Senior High School student Gerald Watson.

“It shouldn’t have to come to this,” said Jenaia Magruder, a junior at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School and member of Pathways 2 Power, a student activist group on a mission to address violence, crime, housing instability, and other issues of concern to District youth.

Jenaia and fellow Pathways 2 Power member Jaimon Cooper addressed onlookers in front of MLK Deli at the launch of the “Safe Spots” program.

“You should be able to make it to your destination without thinking that something will happen [to you],” she added. “People think that this is an everyday thing. What we’re doing today is a start.”

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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