The deli is one of 23 places in Anacostia and Congress Heights that have agreed, by joining the city’s new Safe Spots initiative, to help students who feel unsafe walking to and from school. The participating businesses and organizations have committed to placing signs outside their buildings that will let students know they can come inside if they feel frightened, threatened or need support after an incident has occurred.
The city is calling these places, as the name of the initiative suggests, “safe spots.” They could just as easily be described as designated shelters and escape routes.
That these places now exist for children in the nation’s capital is both commendable and lamentable.
Commendable because it shows that city officials are listening to young people who have attended meetings to voice fears and offer solutions. (Officials credited student feedback for the initiative, and at the Friday event, two students stood at the microphone before Dickerson and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee spoke.)
Lamentable because it has come to this. This is not a precautionary, public relations move. These safe spots are not far from places where memorials have grown and mothers have mourned.
There is also the reality of what the initiative is up against. While it is inspiring to see community members stepping up and trying to create a village for these students, their best efforts can only alleviate the problem, not solve it. Benevolence is not bulletproof.
Young people are still going to get shot and killed in the District, and in other cities, until we do something substantial to limit gun violence in this country. Or we can just keep accepting, and applauding, the Band-Aid solutions that communities are being forced to turn to in an effort to keep children safe.
Just a few days ago, an article in The Washington Post detailed a $48 million effort to create a high school in western Michigan that would limit a shooter’s killing potential.
The school, according to the article, “will add curved hallways to reduce a gunman’s range, jutting barriers to provide cover and egress, and meticulously spaced classrooms that can lock on demand and hide students in the corner, out of a killer’s sight.”
Other horrifying highlights: Film placed on glass to keep it from shattering and a “shadow zone” in classrooms to conceal cowering students.
At the D.C. event, officials launched two other safety initiatives under its Safe Passage program. Students at 20 schools will have access to LiveSafe, an app that will allow them to more easily send emergency alerts, share their locations and flag concerns for other students. And at 10 schools, students will have the ability to use an online tool, CarpooltoSchool, to pair up with others for their commutes.
“We have worked with city officials to try to get youth voices heard … and create real ways to keep us safe as we travel,” Jaimon Cooper, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, told the crowd. “Today is the beginning of implementing some of those very ideas. However, it cannot be the end of listening to young people in the city.”
He was there with Pathways 2 Power, an anti-gun-violence advocacy group formed by students at the charter school after they lost two classmates. In 2017, high school senior Zaire Kelly was shot in the head during a robbery as he was coming home from a college-prep course. Four months later, 19-year-old Paris Brown, who was known to recite poems he wrote, was shot and killed.
After he stepped away from the microphone, and the crowd dispersed, I asked Cooper whether he thought the city’s new initiatives went far enough.
“Yes and no,” he said. “It’s an excellent start.”
Jenaia Magruder, who is also a student at Thurgood Marshall, said she believes offering safe spots for students is important because “it makes it seem like somebody is here for them.”
MLK Deli owner Tyrone White said that he grew up in Ward 7 and that he and his employees understand where the students are coming from. They speak the same language, he said.
“So, they’ll listen to you?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “I’ll listen to them.”
Asked what he most wanted them to know, he said, “If you are in danger and you’re in this area and you don’t have anyone to run to, we’re going to be here for you. We got your back, 100 percent.”
The safe spots run along two routes and include barber shops, churches and recreation centers. Looking at them on a map, alongside the locations where young people have been killed, it’s evident just how much they are needed.
One of the safe spots is the Anacostia Neighborhood Library.
Exactly 0.4 miles from there is where 14-year-old Steven Slaughter was fatally shot as he walked with two friends after buying Hot Fries, a bag of Wild Berry Skittles and a Sprite.
And 0.8 miles from the library is where 11-year-old Karon Brown was shot and killed. His funeral in July came a year after his friend, 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson, was fatally shot as she walked toward an ice cream truck.