Even so, McGee used to be able to take about a dozen kids at a time — all between 2 and 4 years old, walking in line holding a rope, like little fish — one block over to a local elementary school’s playground.
That gave them two hours of safe, outdoor play, tucked behind a building and away from the car chases, police sirens and gunfire of one of the most stubbornly dangerous parts of the nation’s capital.
There were five homicides and 34 nonfatal shootings within about 2,000 feet of the little preschool over the past year, according to crime statistics.
But that building has been turned into a workforce development center, and the guards there told McGee and her teachers children weren’t welcome on the campus anymore.
When I asked D.C. Public Schools about this, they showed me their blanket policy from 2016 on playgrounds and fields, which calls them community facilities that should be open before school, after school and on weekends to the public, with an exception: “Certain DCPS playgrounds are gated, locked, and unavailable to the public at certain times, including on weekends.” That leaves a lot of wiggle room, and schools spokesperson Shayne Wells acknowledged that.
“Our playgrounds are tremendous community assets and DC Public Schools is actively working with school leaders across the District to implement a policy that expands access for residents,” Wells said.
I called that area’s city council member, Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), and I’m still waiting to see whether he has an explanation.
Over in Northwest Washington, Cynthia Davis is also looking for playground space for her day-care kids, and she has a theory on why it’s becoming harder.
“All this security and liability talk? It’s hurting the most vulnerable children, the ones we’re supposed to help,” she said.
For 15 years, Davis has run a home-based day care in the Petworth area. She’s always relied on the nearby school playground to give them a good outing.
“To run a quality program, you need to be able to get these kids out in the fresh air for one to two hours a day,” Davis said. “And we were getting that. The teachers were fine, the principal was fine with it. We weren’t bothering anybody.”
But recently, school administrators told her they can’t let her use the playground anymore “for liability reasons,” she said. “I showed them my insurance; all the liability is on me, not them.”
That was not enough. The local schools put locks on their playground fences.
The nearest public park is too far for the little ones to walk. And, like McGee, she’d have to herd the children across a large and busy thoroughfare. So she’s tried sending her assistants out with that little six-pack buggy, then ferrying them back with her car.
“Sometimes, I just have them play on the porch because it’s the best we can do,” she said.
In a nation increasingly appalled — or worse, not appalled — by the horrific school shootings that have become an American ritual, there are still forgotten pockets filled with forgotten children where gunfire is ever present. The search for a safe place to play is ever present, too.
In the District this year, a 16-year-old was killed by gunfire and more than half a dozen children — including two young brothers shot weeks apart outside their home — have been wounded by people wielding guns.
I spoke with Cierra Dobbs, a teaching assistant at Emergent, as she tried to make the cramped, exposed parking lot work as a makeshift playground. She longed to return to the former elementary school.
“It was so good for them to have that space to play,” Dobbs said. “At a real playground, they build different muscles and skills. And they learn social things, like how to take turns.” A ball soared over the chain-link fence that separated us. “Can you toss that back to us?” she asked.
“And then one day, a man stood in front of us and said we can’t be bringing kids there anymore. And now all we have is this,” she said, spreading her arms out to cover a roughly 20-foot square of pavement surrounded by a chain-link fence, next to the building’s HVAC system.
The kids threw balls and chased each other around the tiny space. The teaching assistants kept an eye on the street, checking for the telltale shouts and tire squeals that are sometimes punctuated with gunshots.
The loss of school playgrounds is tragic for places like this because they are the centers in the poorest parts of the city, where playgrounds are less plentiful and schools are usually the only places where a playground was designed as a safe haven.
“Anywhere else they go is out in the open, where kids are vulnerable,” McGee said.
So why don’t they just move?
“The children are here,” McGee said. True that. Ward 8 has the largest population of children under 5 in the city, between two and four times as many as some other wards, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s data. “The need is here. These children are forgotten. And leaving their community means leaving them.”
But their own neighborhood is hard on them.
“One of our little ones, 2 years old, was shot after school, at home on the family’s porch,” McGee said.
“These kids are in danger every time they are outside here. But the law says you have to get them outside for two hours of fresh air every day. And the truth is, I just can’t do it every day. It’s not safe.”
So she looks at that parking lot again and wonders whether she can get soft mats to make the edges of the curbs safer. Or can she fit some equipment there.
Every few days, the mother of that 18-year-old killed in that parking lot brings her lawn chair and just sits and sits with the little memorial.
McGee looks at her. She knows the kids in her day care — in this part of the city — deserve better.