Safety first? District's plans for getting students safely to school are lacking
by thenotebook on Aug 29 2013 Posted in Commentary
by Maurice Jones
One of the initial statements parents make to their children when teaching them how to ride a bike is safety first. We all know, or have some idea about, the data on brain injury for children who get into an accident and do not protect their heads when riding a bike. There is a reason for this concern, considering that the brain is at the core of all our functions as human beings. It must be protected at all costs.
Surgeon Atul Gawande writes in his book Better about how to greatly reduce infections in hospitals: Simply wash your hands. He further discusses how this most simple of tasks is sometimes made difficult by learned professionals who simply may not take the time to do so, resulting in preventable health issues with patients or even death. Even the highly educated sometimes ignore Safety First.
Philadelphia's fire commissioner talks several times a year about making sure that families make sure that smoke detectors are installed and functioning, but inevitably you will see him painfully reflecting after a fire death when there were no working detectors in the home. Again, he will say that his department will install a detector free of charge to anyone who asks, but fire deaths continue. Another example of neglecting Safety First.
I write all this because, as we know, the School District of Philadelphia is opening schools in two weeks. For months, parents at Lea and Wilson elementaries have been waiting to see how the District will handle the safe passage of our children on opening day. We are still waiting.
Last spring, the District closed 24 schools across the city. One of them was Alexander Wilson. The closing of the school was tragic for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that many in the community came out in support of the school. They spoke of generations of families being educated there and the quality of many of the educational programs. The Lea community also came out in support of Wilson during those terrible months.
In attending one of these meetings, I was surprised at the lack of knowledge from District officials who were voting to close down Wilson. I’ll never forget when the chief of student services seemed not to have heard of the University of the Sciences, an institution next door to Wilson that community members felt had long had its eye on the Wilson school building for expansion. When parent after parent raised concerns about transportation, the deputy superintendent repeated, over and over, “The policy concerning transportation that is in effect this year will remain the policy next year.” The meeting left most parents more concerned and discouraged.
Despite repeated requests to meet directly with Superintendent William Hite, he never came to hear these concerns – even though parents were told that he would. The lack of knowledge about the school and community and the legalistic response to their concerns about safety were alarming to every parent in attendance.
When the School Reform Commission voted to close Wilson, there was great anger and sorrow. But after the vote, both schools began immediately to put together a transition plan. The principal and the staff of Wilson sprung into action and invited the principal of Lea to come to the monthly parents' meeting. Parents and students from Lea also came to discuss plans for the transition. I, as the Home and School Association president of Lea, put together a map of all the crossing-guard locations in the area to provide an idea to Wilson parents of the safe areas and those needing attention. I also addressed with them my conversations with the Bicycle Coalition about a Safe Routes program and discussions with the 18th Police District about safety concerns with the influx of students walking to Lea.
That same week, the District held a meeting at Wilson to discuss the transition and provide parents information about Lea. District personnel mentioned nothing about the safety of children traveling from the Wilson area to Lea. I discussed my work with the 18th District police department, crossing guards, the Bicycle Coalition, and other local, concerned organizations to prepare for the transition of Wilson students to Lea.
In June, more than two months since the vote to close Wilson, I attended the monthly Home and School Council meeting, where representatives from the District's Office of School Safety were scheduled to talk about their safety plans for school closures. Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey was among the guests. Many of the concerns raised by parents at the meeting had to do with transportation and safe travel. Dorsey talked about a plan that her office was putting together, but no details were presented or specifics addressed when she was pressed by parents at the meeting.
I presented a safety report illustrating factors that had not been discussed with Wilson parents during this process, notably that students from the school live an average of 1.3 miles from Lea and will have to travel across 11 two-lane streets, six of which have high vehicle traffic. Three of these high-traffic streets average 230 cars per hour. Three of the four SEPTA bus or trolley lines they will be required to cross are in the top 10 of the most-used routes in the system. The most startling data in the report is a map that marks the location of 35 registered sex offenders who are located in a 1.5-square-mile area of the travel route that children from Wilson will be required to take.
Chief Inspector Dorsey had nothing to add to the two-month-long conversation that parents at Lea and Wilson have been having about their concerns. She assured us that she had plans, but had nothing in writing to present. To this day, we still have not heard a definitive plan for the safe passage of children to and from Lea and Wilson schools.
This lack of information is exactly the reason parents question the District’s lack of attention to safety. Parents think Safety First when it comes to our children. It took me one day to accumulate the data and create the Lea-Wilson Merger Safety Report for that Home and School Council meeting. This makes parents wonder why there was no concentrated effort to address this issue when discussions of closing schools originally came up.
There still is a question in parents' minds about what exactly is the plan for their children traveling to schools across the District. Considering that there are a number of District schools dealing with closing and transitioning into other locations, this is an issue of high priority for parents who have children attending a “strange” school this year.
Was Safety First part of the initial discussion when picking schools for closure? Was it part of the discussion at all? Why did a parent have to be the one to point out the safety factors in closing schools? Why are parents not part of the discussion? How long does it take to get anything done concerning the most important issue facing school closings – school safety?
So as we debate the direction of the SDP and the protection of our children, these questions resonate with us as parents. As the famous Abbott and Costello comedy skit goes, “Who’s on first”? It feels as if the District has no idea who’s on first, and whose priority it is to take care of our children.
In Lisa Delpit’s groundbreaking book Other People’s Children, Delpit examined the disconnect between those who are in charge of children in education and an understanding of the children's needs. When the School District of Philadelphia starts to treat our children like their own instead of “other people’s children,” maybe then we’ll see them examine Safety First in all decision making.
Maurice Jones is president of the Home and School Association at Lea Elementary School and is a member of Parents United for Public Education.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.