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Walking to School in a High Crime City: One Mom’s Worries

Like most of their sixth- and eighth-grade classmates, my kids want to walk to school by themselves. I’m wary of that because we don’t live in a place like the suburban town of my childhood. Instead, we live in Philadelphia—the poorest of the largest cities in America, with one of the highest rates of violent crime.

Gun violence is rampant here. The 20-year-old son of my husband’s former coworker was shot and killed recently. Years ago, a client lost her brother in a random shooting. And it’s not just civilians misusing deadly weapons. A local incident made national news when Philadelphia police officers chased down a 12-year-old boy and fatally shot him in the back after a shot was fired into their unmarked vehicle.

When my kids tell me they’re old enough to walk by themselves to school, I’m thinking about this gun violence. I’m also remembering that time when I was doing outreach in South Philly with my local church and a homeless man wearing an Army uniform told me the homeless were being violently attacked and the Transit Authority Police weren’t doing anything to stop it.

Later, Andrew D., a 31-year-old who’s been living on the city streets for eight months, told me he lived in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, and Philadelphia is the most violent city he’s been in. He said high schoolers are attacking the homeless day and night, and they’re robbing local stores.

High schoolers.

Next year, my older daughter will be in high school. I’m already anxious about her getting lost and ending up somewhere dangerous when she navigates the city and the subway system by herself. What if some of these violent kids are in her high school too?

I can’t distract myself with next year’s fears, though. Today I have to concentrate on keeping my kids safe right now, while I’m walking them to their middle school. Along the way, we talk about what’s happening in their lives. They tell me about an upcoming soccer game or a meet-up with a friend, etc. This morning walk is our precious time to connect. Still, I can’t help assessing folks we pass along our route, and pointing out dangers at corner crossings, reminding them to be super careful and wait to cross until there are no cars.

How to Compromise on Teen Freedom

When we reach the major intersection along our route, we separate. My kids walk without me from there to their charter school. This point of separation was my compromise when they said they wanted to walk to school by themselves. They wanted more independence. I wanted them safe. So I settled on walking them halfway, which is to this intersection, where I’m now saying goodbye.

I tell myself it’s okay to give them this freedom, especially at this hour in the morning when many others are walking to school or work. But I still have one condition: They have to walk together. I don’t want either of them walking alone. When I have a morning commitment, I give them an extra dose of independence—they walk together the whole way without me, and I track their location via their phones.

In the afternoon, I don’t wait for them at the intersection. I pick up my kids at their school, giving us a longer walk together and more bonding time.

If they’re hanging out with friends, I tell my kids they need to choose their friends wisely. I need to know who they are, where they are, and what they’re doing. There will never be a time when I don’t keep tabs on them. In this city, I can’t afford not to.

I pray the city becomes safer for families to raise children, and for more solutions that address the violent crimes and the homeless crisis here. But also, I can’t wait for miracles that may never come, so I do what I can right here, right now, to keep my kids safe. I complete my work assignments around their schedules, as I’ve done this since my two were born, and I’ll continue doing this as they grow through their teenage years. 

Do I regret raising my kids in Philly? Yes, and no. Yes, because Philly has shown my kids that they need to worry about their safety. No, because they’ve benefited a lot by living in Philly, and the danger of living here has shown them that our challenges are easier to face when we stick together. That’s a lesson I hope they’ll carry forward as they grow older, regardless of the situation or where they choose to live.

Erin Flynn Jay is a reporter and publicist based in Philadelphia. Writing credits include Next Avenue, Woman’s World, and Bar & Restaurant. The topics she writes about include urban issues, economic mobility, childhood education, and women’s health. You can find her on Twitter @erinfjay.

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