You Drive Your Kids to School Because the Neighborhood Doesn't Feel Safe. The Neighborhood Doesn't Feel Safe Because Everybody Drives.

Many of you have been following my attempts to save a historic school in my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. As the school district’s plans have evolved, what was once an effort to save one building from demolition has morphed into a larger struggle to keep my local school district from turning significant portions of our neighborhoods into parking lots. In a sad irony, we saved the neighborhood school—but if school officials have their way, we’ve done it at the cost of the neighborhood.

Last week, I was in town and able to attend a joint meeting with some city officials, a couple of school board officials, and a bunch of city staff. City officials represent the people who live in these neighborhoods, while school district officials represent people who live throughout an enormous school district, most of which comprises suburban and rural areas.

In a practical sense, city officials and school district officials have different incentives. The city officials live in these neighborhoods. School officials drive through them on their way to wherever they are going. These perspectives were reflected in the values and priorities each brought to the table.

The school district started off making the case that people want to drive their kids to school for safety reasons. It took a while to get what this was all about—there was a lot of discussion about safety around pick-up and drop-off—but towards then end of the meeting, one principal spoke clearly about safety concerns. More on that later (it’s bizarre).

The thrust of the conversation tended to be about two issues: picking up and dropping off kids is dangerous (and not very convenient), and visitors during events sometimes have to park in the neighborhood and walk up to four blocks to get to the school. In this context, walking is also dangerous.

So they claim it’s about safety, not convenience. And yet their approach to improving safety—destroying the fabric of the neighborhood in order to provide more parking—would really just improve convenience for those who drive, while making things more dangerous for kids walking to school.

The existing parking lot at Brainerd High School on a non-school day. (Source: Google)

I’m going to pause here and note that the school district does not provide busing to students living within a mile of the neighborhood schools. This means kids as young as kindergarten, in Minnesota January temperatures well below zero, are expected to walk a dozen or more blocks to and from school. That is the base expectation for students, but not for faculty or parents.

For the latter, the school district is proposing to follow what they are calling “best practice,” an effort that involves turning urban, gridded streets into as close a facsimile of a suburban neighborhood—like the “safe” places they all live—as possible. Each drawing they presented noted that their approach to safety was to “separate bus, vehicles, pedestrian traffic,” just like at a suburban campus.

Having this separation would allow traffic to flow more smoothly. It would get those parents dropping off and picking up their kids through and on their way more quickly and conveniently. It would allow the buses to perform high-volume operations. And it would give faculty a convenient place to park, freeing up on-street parking spaces for parents.

And all this convenience would also make things safer because…. Well, because it would be more like the nice, clean, upscale places they are all used to living in which, of course, are de-facto better….er….safer.

The week before this meeting, I put together a memo for my city council detailing what I anticipated the school district’s arguments on safety would be and how they don’t apply to gridded, urban neighborhoods. I anticipated correctly: in fact, it was as if school board officials were reading from my memo. To the extent they are using best practices, those practices are from the 1960s. The school district staff and officials completely misunderstand the neighborhoods they are located in.

And to put an exclamation point on that assertion, I’m going to return to the bizarre statement that revealed exactly what district officials think about life in my city. Towards the end of the meeting, one of the principals—all four school principals were there—spoke up and voiced concerns she felt “needed to be heard.”

She said that there were a high number of sex offenders in the neighborhood. This was why parents drove their kids, she claimed: to keep them safe from predators. And, for the sake of these children, we must build these parking lots and free up the streets for separating bus, vehicle and pedestrian traffic. If we don’t, these very young children run the very real risk of becoming victims of crime.

The city officials I could see (some had their backs to me) were visibly showing signs of disgust, yet it was the school district’s turn to speak. And the vibe from them was that something important and very real had just been spoken: that Brainerd is a city whose neighborhoods are full of sexual predators. Anyone in their right mind would never walk these dangerous streets. Anyone who cares about their children would never send them outside.

For school officials, driving to Brainerd’s neighborhood schools from their safe, suburban homes is doing the Lord’s work, an act of public service just a step away from entering a combat zone or running into a burning home. With predators lurking around every corner, potentially hiding behind any tree, can we blame any of these faculty and parents for wanting to get in and out as quickly as possible?

I sent that principal this email. She has not responded.

I was sitting behind you at the meeting with the city and the school board and heard your comments on the safety of children walking and biking in neighborhoods with sexual predators. You left before the meeting ended and so I did not get a chance to chat with you about your remarks. Please accept these comments instead.

You indicated earlier in the meeting that currently "40 to 50 students" walk and bike to Garfield school. As you know, the school district has chosen to not provide busing to students within a mile of our neighborhood schools. So, unless we are working towards a day when those 40 or 50 kids would also be driven in automobiles, the policy that would make it the safest for those kids is one that resulted in 150 to 200 students walking and biking. 

For concerns like sexual predators, street crossings and the overall welfare of a neighborhood, the key to safety is in numbers. The more people who walk and bike, the safer it becomes for everyone walking and biking. Our current approach, which the plans presented today by the school district would aggressively expand, has created neighborhoods where generally only the most marginalized and vulnerable walk or bike. For my part, that is one of the main things I'm working to change.

Thank you for listening.

The fear expressed by these school officials comes from ignorance. Brainerd’s neighborhoods are very safe. I walk them all the time, as do my kids and their friends. The greatest danger we have here isn’t sexual predators; it’s getting hit by a speeding car.

But if you live in a setting where everyone drives everywhere, where walking or biking is only a recreational activity—and every school board member as well as the entire senior leadership of the school district lives in such a setting—then you start to see the unknown as scary. You want to make things more like something you are familiar and comfortable with. You become blind to what is actually going on for people whose experiences aren’t like yours.

And when you’re in a profession like education—one that attracts people who are high in empathy, those with a natural disposition to care for the vulnerable children they see every day—it’s very easy to put forth the safety of children as the reason you want to change their neighborhood to be more comforting to you. You want to provide for them the quality of experience you have attained, one that you find to be safe. That’s what you were signaling to voters, and that’s what you now believe they have endorsed. It’s all very self-affirming.

I believe these school board officials and their senior staff are good people who have the best interests of students at heart. I believe that they believe what they are saying. That doesn’t make them correct.

As we head towards our annual #BlackFridayParking event, I’m painfully aware that we have a lot of work to do to change people’s minds on parking. But I think we can do it—and if we want our places to be strong, we must.

(Cover photo: North Dakota DOT via Flickr)