In discussing making schools safer, an element frequently neglected is the coming and going. Traveling from home to school and back again can be a trial by fire for many students, with concerns including:
• Other Environmental hazards
• Bullying, and
• Other Predators
Encounters can fall short of fatal and still have a dramatic impact on students’ lives. If they arrive at school with hearts pounding and adrenaline pumping they may have trouble attending to academics. If they’re terrified, they’re likely experiencing physiological changes that come with fight or flight: the blood rushes to the major muscle groups, for punching or running, and it has to come from somewhere. One source? The frontal lobe. That’s a pretty handy part of the brain essential for higher reasoning, which means students are left temporarily just plain stupid. It’s not that they’re unwilling to try – it’s that they can’t.
So how do you address these issues?
• Survey students to determine:
1. How many walk or bicycle to school.
2. Whether they encounter anything bothersome on the way to or from school.
3. What the school or community can do to help them feel safer.
This can be handled informally, or as an in-class exercise, or it can be handled electronically, using products like SurveyMonkey, or Ving!
• Gather data from local police and medical services regarding the number of accidents, assaults or other crimes against children reported within the area served by your school during the hour before or after school.
• Walk through the surrounding neighborhood to see what it’s like. I delivered a workshop for one school district on the east coast a few years ago in which I took a few dozen teachers on a walking tour of their own neighborhood, and was taken aback to find many of them highly resistant. Their image of their own neighborhood was mighty frightening, and it made me think twice before proceeding. As it turned out, nothing bad happened, and we did learn a thing or two. Walking to school involved crossing a four lane highway, with inadequate traffic controls and limited sidewalks. Graffiti was limited mostly to back alleys, and was mostly tagging –annoying vandalism that undermines community territoriality, but not as ominous as gang graffiti, which usually involves threats of violence. We also saw many ordinary, peaceful residents tending to their lawns and gardens.
A tour like this has enormous potential, including the following:
• Teachers who tour the neighborhood serve as ambassadors for the school. They gain opportunities to meet students, parents and neighbors in another context. This humanizes the teacher and builds trust. They also have an opportunity to educate residents about school resources or events they can take advantage of, building connectivity between the school and the community.
• Residents who meet teachers and exchange contact information are more likely to help when help is needed. This could be anything from supporting a bond measure to standing in front of their homes before and after school to provide eyes and ears while children are traveling.
• Risks between home and school may become invisible background noise for students, to the point where they can’t even identify the risks when asked. Fresh eyes may be more attentive, noticing dangerous street crossings, gang graffiti, hypodermic needles in the gutter, or other indicators of trouble. Teachers and parents can help identify dangerous routes to avoid, and plan out safer alternatives, with clear lines of sight, adult supervision, controlled traffic, etc.
• We can also help students network, in order to walk or bicycle to school in groups. Isolation is a primary risk factor for students, who become easier for predators or bullies to target, as well as easier for drivers to lose sight of. The “walking school bus” is a similar concept, organizing students to travel in small herds, often with adult chaperones or observers along the route. The Safe Routes to School movement has made extraordinary in-roads across the country, with cheerleaders just about everywhere. A quick web search will turn up a wealth of resources, or you can start at the top, checking out the federal website at http://www.saferoutesinfo.org/. Links within lead to resources at the state or local levels.
The State of Maine put together some outstanding slide shows a few years back which including fine illustrations of how unsafe routes could be improved. The following is one example:
• Finally, for something completely different, consider Lego-style bike lanes. This unusual approach has gained some traction in Europe. Bike lanes can be installed at 1/10 the cost of a permanent fixture, in order to test out the design and effectiveness. My guess is, most kids would jump at the chance to help put these together! The picture at the top of this post is an example, but you can check them out further at http://www.fastcoexist.com/3021509/lego-like-bike-lanes-that-snap-into-place-could-create-instant-biking-cities#3