You’re 5 years old, weigh about 50 pounds and have to jump to see over the hood of an SUV. It’s time to step off a curb on your way to school and it’s just a bit scary. There is no one there to hold your hand, look both ways and put you on your way to learning your ABCs.
In this imperfect world, many children have no companion to help get them safely through the neighborhood. Parents often must be at work before school starts or must stay on the job until long after school lets out. Some families have only one parent, and sometimes there aren’t older kids to walk with a younger one.
So it’s not unusual to see tiny children walking alone to area schools.
Previous Beacon Journal stories have shown how dangerous walking to school can be, and the newspaper’s analysis of statistics shows that African-American and poor children are more likely to walk — and more likely to be hurt.
In Akron, where busing is rare, a student is hit by a vehicle on an average of once every 12 days.
With school out for the summer, Lisa Pardi says now is the time for the community, particularly parents, to take to the streets and get kids ready for safe trips to school in the fall.
Pardi is injury prevention coordinator for the Safe Kids Coalition of Summit County. She says parents have the first responsibility to teach kids safety concepts but acknowledges they need help.
“I think it does take a community to raise children,” she said.
And she said the parents who think it’s OK to send young kids off to school by themselves need some education themselves.
“We have the recommendation that children under 10 do not walk alone, and in addition, when I say that, it doesn’t mean a 5-year-old should be walking with another 5-year-old. We want someone who is over the age of 10 with that small person.”
Good practice time
When school is out it’s a good time for parents to walk their children to school using each moment to point out the dangers and the safe practices that will serve them a lifetime. In summer, kids are heading to playgrounds and friends’ houses instead.
Pardi’s organization sponsors Walk This Way, a program that offers safety tips as part of International Walk to School Day. Unfortunately, it’s one day at one school in October, two months after the start of school.
City without Safety Town
Many communities also have a more comprehensive program called Safety Town that is sponsored by community service groups. Children walk through miniature, make-believe towns with streets, sidewalks, traffic signals and vehicles.
Those tend to be in wealthier suburbs, where children seldom have to navigate busy streets. In Akron, where most children walk, there is no such program.
“Because we don’t have a Safety Town, it is up to parents to teach their children how to walk to and from school safely,” Pardi said. “Just like if children have homework from school, [parents] should be working with them on these activities. They should rehearse with their children walking to and from school.”
One trip is not enough; families must take multiple trips for the lessons to sink in.
It’s also important to know the school parking lot has its dangers, too. It is common to see children run between cars.
“Even though we try to teach them, sometimes they are excited and they are ready to go and have somewhere to be, and they will run out and not pay attention,” Pardi said.
She said some families choose to enroll children in latch-key programs to allow parents to work full shifts.
Even driving is not entirely safe. Pardi said she sees parents who drive their kids often allowing the children to ride in the front seat when they should be in the back and in a booster seat.
Dorothy Chlad, Safety Town’s national president, started with Safety Town in 1964 and learned a lot about child development as the group evolved.
She told the Beacon Journal earlier this year that children must be shown safe practices repeatedly before they absorb the concepts.
She also found parents don’t always know the entire lesson. For example, she heard parents warning to “look both ways” only to find the children walking into the street — and danger — as they looked left and right.
Chlad, formerly of Bedford, tried to start Safety Town in Akron years ago, but it failed to catch on.
Some organizations charge up to $40 per child, but she disputed the idea it must be so expensive. Some communities used chalk on a playground and cardboard boxes to represent vehicles in the creation of the tiny town children could walk through.
Both Chlad and Pardi emphasized that walking is healthy for children; it just needs to be made safer.
Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Township, wants to pursue that issue.
He was part of a series of Senate hearings on school safety and acknowledges the problem.
“There are other things that students do in their daily routines that cause safety concerns — and getting to school is one of those,” he said.
LaRose is proposing a “broad reaching conversation” that touches on additional state aid for school transportation, as well as sharing county and city transit services to get more kids off the street.
“I think that there’s a worthy conversation to be had that we need to be investing more in school transportation but also a worthy conversation about consolidation and shared services. Those are some of the creative thoughts that I think should be happening in our school districts to do more with less.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.