Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s “Walk to School” event earlier this week was designed to promote safe and healthy lifestyles, and to welcome students back to school.
This staged event provided a nice message, but mostly offered a good media visual for the Secretary’s public relations machine. It also overlooked that in many communities, including D.C., school walking routes present serious hazards and threats to the safety of children.
As my colleague and fellow school safety consultant, Chuck Hibbert, pointed out:
“While on one hand it is ‘healthy’ to walk, it is also potentially dangerous. Schools and parents must offer children additional training on how to safely walk to school. In addition, in many communities the danger is not simply from motor vehicles, but also greater exposure to child predators, gangs, drug dealers, and others with ill intentions.”
The ED Department’s press release noted that Duncan, along with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, D.C. Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee, and U.S. Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez joined 100-150 students and parents to walk a two-block route from Lincoln Park to Maury Elementary. While at the school, they discussed the “value of fitness in maintaining safe and healthy lives” following “First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative aimed at confronting the problem of childhood obesity through fitness and adequate nutrition.”
Fitness and adequate nitruition? A reasonable initiative. A good walk?Absolutely. I am working with my family and work colleagues to walk more and eat better. It’s a challenge. And a good message.
Duncan’s Missing Safety Message
What was missing was a focus on acknowledging the safety threats in many communities. One has to wonder how far the federal agents and local police who provide security details for Duncan, Fenty, Rhee, and Mendez were from event. And did these public officials walk by themselves or even in a small group of just the four of them from their D.C. offices to the site of this PR event?
Our kids don’t have federal agents and local police security details. Many, especially in larger urban districts where parents don’t have the SUVs and portal-to-portal services of many affluent suburban kids, walk up to two miles daily through crime, drug, and predator-infested neighborhoods to get school and back home. Many of them do so by themselves and without friends, much less a personal protection team.
Duncan, who came to the Obama Administration from Chicago, should know the perils of “to and from school” safety threats. Many of the kids killed in his former school district were victims of violence to and from school. In fact, last year, Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder held another PR event in Chicago after a student was killed, dropping $500,000 from the Education Department’s Project SERV fund and millions in stimulus money to the Chicago Schools and City of Chicago on their way out the door.
There’s even a Safe Routes to School National Partnership. They note that walking and biking to school can “provide a variety of important benefits to children and their communities, including increasing physical activity, reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality, and enhancing neighborhood safety.” The bulk of these benefits could be true.
Focus on Personal Safety First, Then the Obesity and Health Message
But the primary focus should be on the last point: “Enhancing neighborhood safety.” In some communities, collective groups of children could offer a perception of improved neighborhood safety providing the broader community surrounding them consisted of visible adults who proactively monitor and protect kids. But in many communities —urban, suburban, and rural — there are also dangers on the street that pose safety risks, not benefits, to children walking to and from school.
Duncan’s “Walking School Bus” event could have better served children by not only talking about obesity and healthy lifestyles, but also the importance of being aware of potential threats students could encounter to and from school, and how to manage them. Otherwise, a well-intended but skewed message of the healthy benefits of walking to school could fail to alert kids to some greater dangers that could actually get them hurt or even killed.
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