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Critics of D.C.’s ‘Safe Passage’ question if school commutes are safer

Safe Passage worker Tenika McEachin, center, stands guard outside Ketcham Elementary School in Historic Anacostia on Jan. 12. The Safe Passage program was established by the city to help students safely commute to and from school. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
12 min

The street where Jayna Avery waits for the Metrobus every morning is empty, with the exception of the occasional car. The sky is still pitch-black when the bus rumbles down her street in Southwest Washington around 6:45 a.m.

When she gets on, she’s the only student — her backpack, baby pink glasses, striped tie and khaki skirt are a clear giveaway. She munches on an apple and silently watches videos on her phone, settling in for a commute that will last more than an hour.

The 15-year-old’s routine isn’t uncommon in a city like D.C., where most students traverse neighborhoods and wards on public transportation rather than a yellow school bus. Often, however, those commutes can be dangerous. Students encounter fights, drug use and, sometimes, shootings. Jayna is regularly fending off older men, she said. “I know it’s inevitable, being a woman and having to deal with catcallers.”

Amid an alarming surge of youth violence, those concerns are prompting questions about one of D.C.’s most well-known efforts to protect students on their commutes to and from school: Safe Passage Safe Blocks. It’s regularly touted as one of the city’s best defenses against youth crime, particularly as students continue to be killed or injured near school.

Andre Jamar Robertson Jr., 15, died in an October shooting near Aiton Elementary School and, more recently, a 6- and 9-year-old were shot and injured while exiting a Metro bus. The city’s police chief said the children appeared to be coming home from school and were caught in an altercation that started on the bus.

The Safe Passage program has been recently expanded, yet some students, parents and school leaders are questioning its effectiveness — with doubts about whether the people it posts outside schools in high-crime neighborhoods are making communities safer, and calling for more consistency and training for workers. As young people are increasingly victimized, many are pleading for even more security, particularly aboard buses and trains.

“There’s a growing frustration, and growing weariness and a loss of patience,” said Dan Davis, who leads the city’s Office of the Student Advocate. “We see young people, it feels like every day, becoming victims of gunshots. Those are people’s friends, their classmates, their neighbors.”

An optimistic program with mixed reviews

Launched in D.C. in 2017, Safe Passage was developed to help address concerns about student safety, including threats of violence, intimidation or harassment around schools. The city issues grants to community organizations, which then place adults from the neighborhood — ex-security officers, parents or concerned residents just willing to help — along specific routes.

The 160 workers are tasked with keeping a watchful eye out for danger while welcoming students into school or sending them off in the afternoons. Most are stationed in front of schools, alongside crossing guards or on busy street corners.

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The city spent $4.3 million to expand Safe Passage last fiscal year. Another $6.2 million was used to a launch a small-scale transportation arm called DC SchoolConnect, providing about 300 students with rides to school. But it can be difficult to gauge just how big a difference the program has been making.

“At this point, we actually are relying on the school communities themselves and their reporting about whether or not they feel safer with Safe Passage workers being present,” said Paul Kihn, D.C.’s deputy mayor for education, adding reports from schools have been “generally positive.”

Officials use other metrics, including the number of violent incidents before and after school involving youth — and self-reported data from Safe Passage workers about how often they mediate conflicts between students. But those factors still don’t completely explain whether communities are getting safer, Kihn said. “It’s very, very difficult, given the range of factors involved in community violence, to be able to look at those kinds of measures to see whether things are ticking up or ticking down.”

D.C.’s Safe Passage areas include 52 elementary, middle and high school campuses and span swaths of the city where students have dealt with crime on their commutes: around the Anacostia, Minnesota Avenue, NoMa-Gallaudet U, L’Enfant Plaza and Waterfront Metro stations, as well as the Good Hope Road SE corridor, Congress Heights, Columbia Heights, Petworth and Brightwood.

But Safe Passage’s impact varies and there is little consistency across the city among workers and what their jobs entail, said families and school leaders.

Since Safe Passage workers arrived to Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast Washington last school year, officials have incorporated them into the campus, said Raymond Weeden, the school’s executive director. Weeden has invited them to planning meetings and showed them the areas around campus most prone to troubling, or illegal activity.

School leaders can tailor Safe Passage to their communities, and at Thurgood Marshall their responsibilities include escorting teens to the nearby Metro station and ushering them into the building on time. “Just to keep an eye out for families in the area,” Weeden said. “We have very high drug use here in this area. … I expect that they know that they’re responsible for the safety of our children.”

Weeden said having Safe Passage workers present before and after school brings comfort to students’ families and, overall, the program has worked. Though, he confessed, he is unsure how the program is supposed to be structured. “I just know what works here,” he said.

On a recent afternoon outside Ketcham Elementary School, kids bounded down Good Hope Road with candy canes and lollipops. Tenika McEachin, one of the four Safe Passage employees monitoring the area, greeted most of the dozens of kids by name.

“Nathan, your bus!” she said to one boy, who was running around with his pack of fruit snacks. “Look, Nathan, your mother is going to leave you.”

The boy ran toward the bus stop where his mother was waiting down the corner from his elementary school. She gave a 7-year-old named Caleb a hug goodbye. Similar exchanges unfolded through the afternoon.

But the local crossing guard on Good Hope Road said she likes to call the street “No Hope Road” because of the constant bloodshed. The area has long been prone to violence, and multiple neighborhood residents said the threat of gunfire has intensified in recent years.

McEachin started working with Safe Passage in May and said she has since built rapport with groups of men who tend to hang out in the area. She said she has asked them to move so frequently that they have for the most part learned to stay away from the block around school dismissal time.

“From being here, I have a good relationship with them where I can say, ‘Hey, you can’t be right here’ and they don’t give me any problems,” the 31-year-old said. “They respect us, and we respect them as humans, too.”

But Ebony Price, 33, said she often fears for her kids’ safety when taking them home from school. A few weeks ago, soon after picking up her kids from Ketcham, she said she saw a bus pull over with a bullet hole in its window. Her daughter asked what had happened. Price told her that there had been a shooting on the bus, just a block or so north of her school. The 7-year-old, who used to race for the window seat, vowed to never sit near a bus window again.

Price said she feels safe when her kids are inside of their school and appreciates Safe Passage workers for being positive influences around the building. But she said their presence does not do much to make her feel shielded from bullets.

“They are very friendly and say hello, but I don’t know what their role is,” she said. “I’ve never seen them doing anything action-wise.”

Elsewhere, Germaine Williams, a 16-year-student at Anacostia High School, said he has only seen the workers “stand around and talk to each other.” He said he would like to see the adults walk students to their buses or escort them into school, given there have been shootings in the area.

Safe Passage has also had challenges at Center City Public Charter School’s campus in Congress Heights. “There’s an engagement piece missing,” said Niya White, the school’s principal, adding she doesn’t feel their presence makes the neighborhood any safer.

White said there are about eight Safe Passage workers near the school who usually greet students, wishing them “good morning” or “good afternoon.” Those efforts are appreciated, she said, but she would like to see the workers forge deeper connections with students — the students won’t feel protected unless they can trust the Safe Passage staff.

Meanwhile some of the more pressing threats, such as fights or shootings, are left up to school staff. “I’ve come back with bruises, torn clothes, trying to break up a fight” between students, White said. The Safe Passage workers, she said, are not supposed to intervene in those kinds of altercations.

Kihn said that is intentional. Workers are told to alert school staff, security or police when skirmishes between students escalate. “It is absolutely not our vision that our Safe Passage workers, who are trusted community members, who come from all walks of life and all ages are going to be stepping in between what can be sometimes violent altercations,” Kihn said. “These are not peacemakers, these are not police officers.”

At a meeting this month with school leaders, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser posited the idea of having Safe Passage workers inside school buildings, partially to fill the gap left behind by school resource officers. The D.C. Council voted in 2021 to phase police out of schools by 2025.

In the meantime, there is some desire to have Safe Passage workers take a more active approach in diffusing conflicts, however. The city council recently passed legislation requiring the workers go through training to intervene in bullying, fights and other disagreements.

‘I pray over my baby every day’

The sky is brighter when Jayna arrives at the Anacostia metro station, where she waits for the Metrobus that will take her to school. It’s nearly 7:30 a.m. when she boards — almost an hour into her journey — when she takes a seat near the front.

This bus has more students than the first one — teens step through the folding doors holding drawstring backpacks. A trio of girls walk on in multicolored puffer coats. Jayna dozes off during the 30-minute trip down Minnesota Avenue that takes passengers past corner stores and fast food restaurants, brick rowhouses and beauty supply stores.

Nearly 70 percent of students said they do not feel “uncomfortable or in danger” while traveling to school, according to a survey conducted last school year by the Office of the Student Advocate, which helps families understand D.C.’s education system. But Davis, with the advocacy office, said that figure can be misleading.

“I think the students, they’ve kind of normalized their experiences,” Davis said. Some students say they feel safe trekking to school but describe incidents along their commute that are clearly unsafe — such as watching fights break out or having to provide first aid to a classmate who was attacked by a group of students.

It’s almost 8 a.m. when Jayna arrives at school. She crosses the busy street and files inside with a flock of other students who have arrived by bus or train. Outside, three Safe Passage workers, clad in green vests, sip from disposable coffee cups and welcome students inside. “Good morning, y’all!” one woman exclaims.

“I haven’t seen them do much of anything,” Jayna said, although she does appreciate the daily greetings. She doesn’t necessarily feel unsafe commuting to school, but uncomfortable. She wishes there were more security along her commute, both while waiting for public transit and on it.

Many young people across the city feel the same way, and are asking for more supervision along their routes. Logan Bunn, a student at Jefferson Middle School Academy, regularly encounters fights on her commute. She recounted a time when another student threatened to “shoot up” the school because he was being bullied on the bus. “I feel like there should be patrol on the bus,” said the 14-year-old. “There’s a lot of conflicts between regular people or even students against students.”

Other students said Safe Passage workers should work later hours. Staff are posted outside of schools immediately after classes end, but not into the evening when many students are leaving sports practices, band rehearsals and after-school clubs.

Tara Brown, Jayna’s mother, knows her daughter doesn’t have to commute an hour to school. She could attend her neighborhood school just 2 miles from her home.

But Jayna loves her current school. The 15-year-old has made friends, joined the international club and took up playing the sousaphone, a low-pitched horn “that’s like a tuba, but not,” Jayna said.

Every student who graduates from Friendship is accepted into college, Brown explained. “I want her to have that.”

But, “I’m terrified,” Brown added. “I pray over my baby every day.”