Safe Passage To Nowhere

While I was writing this blog post, on the November 25 DC council hearing on safe passage, a DC public school student who was shot during school hours died and DCPS announced the closure of an alternative high school whose students had poor attendance, quite possibly because many had to travel across town to attend it.

Sadly, all are related events.

That hearing was ostensibly about a piece of legislation that would set up an office of safe passage that would endeavor to form a strategic plan for safe passage; award grants to organizations that can help; and set up priority areas in wards 7 and 8 that have high incidents of violent crime and then provide buses to public transit for students in areas without nearby public transit.

(In fact, Ward 7 tonight (12/2) hosts a public meeting on safe passage at 6:30 pm at Nats Academy, 3675 Ely Place SE. See more information here.)

Because concerns about safe passage go to the heart of lived experience for nearly every DC family, the council hearing featured a wide spectrum of people–and reactions to the legislation. DCPS and charter parents and students, the DC department of transportation (DDOT), the attorney general’s office, and the deputy mayor for education (DME) all testified, some in favor, some not.

In addition to the efforts outlined in the bill to ensure students are safe going to and from school, there were many others raised at the hearing, including a DDOT study of transit; the safe routes to school program; a charter board study; and three DME pilot programs.

Yet, despite that flurry of activity and thinking around safe passage, one message came through loud and clear: it’s all not enough.

Here, for instance, is an abbreviated list of what witnesses testified is urgently needed and not provided now nor with this bill:

–More crossing guards at and near schools, especially at known dangerous intersections
–More traffic calming at schools, especially with known dangerous intersections
–More marked cross walks near schools and commuting routes to schools
–Better protection of pedestrians at cross walks near schools
–Better traffic enforcement at high-speed, multilane roads (East Capitol St. SE in Ward 7 got special mention several times)
–Better treatment of students by Metro police
–Focused and dependable transit services for homeless students
–Increased frequency of Metro buses during school arrival and departure times
–Reduced congregation of students at transit hubs

Ironically, there is one person in DC who wasn’t at that hearing but who could, right now, make most if not all of these issues a moot point!

Who could unite all the disparate efforts and studies by DC agencies.

Who could work with Metro to ensure buses in key areas would run more frequently.

Who could coordinate police, social services, and schools to ensure students were accompanied by trained adults in known, dangerous areas and crowded transit hubs.

Who could fund more crossing guards; better traffic enforcement in key areas; better signage; more traffic calming; better road markings (especially as many people testified they have asked for, and not gotten, those things).

Who could ensure that the promised transit services for homeless students are actually provided to them (they apparently aren’t).

And who could ensure that all schools everywhere are adequately funded and supported, such that school proliferation and closures would stop and students would not be forced to travel ever-farther to attend school and thus face increasing danger during their travels.

But judging from the testimony during that hearing, and the fact that this legislation exists, Mayor Bowser isn’t doing any of that.

In fact, all those safe passage efforts that witnesses testified about–as earnest, well-meaning, and even well-run as they may (or aspire to) be–fix none of the ills outlined above that parents and administrators repeatedly testified as needing urgent attention. Even the legislation itself, clearly well-intended, doesn’t fix them, absent effort at the top of the political food chain to act as outlined above.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all in this irony-filled situation is that the problems we see with safe passage and these not fully realized or successful efforts at solutions so aptly demonstrate both the promise and danger of mayoral control of schools–possibly all the more so in our environment, where school choice is prioritized and many neighborhood schools remain under-resourced.

That is, because of prior closures, some neighborhoods in DC have no school of right. (Hello River Terrace! Hello Kenilworth! Hello Ft. Lincoln!) Worse, those closures have meant that even very young children in some neighborhoods have to commute across multi-lane, high-speed through-fares twice a day, five days a week, to avail themselves of the school seats they have a right to. (Hello Ft. Lincoln! Hello Rosedale! Hello River Terrace!)

And that’s not even counting neighborhoods with very poor (or nonexistent) feeder patterns of right, where commutes to schools of right are long and across busy roads (Hello Ledroit Park! Hello Langdon!)

And of course, because of the growth of charters (and related, subsequent closures of DCPS neighborhood schools, because that does not happen in a vacuum), the resulting increased attendance at schools of choice inevitably means more DC students are traveling farther to go to school.

Bottom line: If our city streets are already not safe for many kids, how is increasing their commuting helping?

Notwithstanding the inherent interests of charter schools to have buses paid by DC (which this legislation appears to dance around in a kind of precursor pas de deux), the language of the bill appears otherwise gutless–which may be the best it can be.

After all, under mayoral control (which, ironies of ironies, the DC council itself mandated without voters actually voting on it) the DC council has a relatively limited role in terms of making (and enforcing!) education policy. And as we have seen repeatedly, the council is at an inevitable remove from schools and the people who actually control them. Significantly, those same people also control information about those schools and its dissemination–which has resulted not merely in public obfuscation and frustrated council oversight, but also scandal.

(And that’s just for the stuff we know about. Hello, Jack Evans!)

Thus, it was not exactly surprising that during the hearing council members were often told that the legislation was not enough, or not on the mark, or that other measures were more urgently needed.

The one place that the council could, in fact, have tremendous influence regarding safe passage would be to calculate the fiscal impact of school proliferation, which of course magnifies and multiplies issues around safe passage.

That is, the council could calculate the costs of opening new schools (i.e., new charter facilities fees each year that could go to existing schools; tighter resources annually to cover fixed costs for existing schools, etc.); the fiscal impact of school closures resulting from school proliferation; and the cost of students’ increased commuting as a result of those closures and proliferation. Not only are all of these inherently tied to safe passage, but their cost is almost entirely borne by our kids and their families.

But as with real remedies for safe passage, don’t hold your breath.

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