An estimated 3 million children are exposed to gun violence, directly or indirectly, every year.1Everytown analysis derives this number by multiplying the share of children (aged 0 to 17) who are exposed to shootings per year (4 percent) by the total child population of the US in 2016 ( approximately 73.5 million). David Finkelhor et al., “Prevalence of Childhood Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse: Results from the national survey of children’s exposure to violence,” JAMA Pediatrics 169, no. 8 (August 1, 2015): 746–54, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.0676. The lingering trauma from exposure to gun violence can have serious implications on children’s lives,2Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Invisible Wounds: Gun violence and community trauma among Black Americans,” May 27, 2021, https://everytownresearch.org/report/invisible-wounds-gun-violence-and-community-trauma-among-black-americans/. including their school lives.3Exposure to gun violence affects everything from the students’ ability to maintain attention to attendance, overall enrollment numbers, performance on standardized tests, and graduation rates. Patrick T. Sharkey et al., “The Effect of Local Violence on Children’s Attention and Impulse Control,” American Journal of Public Health 102, no. 12 (December 2012): 2287–93, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300789; Louis-Philippe Beland and Dongwoo Kim, “The Effect of High School Shootings on Schools and Student Performance,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 38, no. 1 (March 2016): 113–26, https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373715590683; Hallam Hurt et al., “Exposure to Violence: Psychological and academic correlates in child witnesses,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 155, no. 12 (December 1, 2001): 1351–56, https://doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.155.12.1351; David J. Harding, “Collateral Consequences of Violence in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods,” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (December 1, 2009): 757–84, https://doi.org/10.1353/sof.0.0281; David Finkelhor et al., “Children’s Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse: An update,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, September 2015), https://bit.ly/2tK7ah6; David Schwartz and Andrea Hopmeyer Gorman, “Community Violence Exposure and Children’s Academic Functioning,” Journal of Educational Psychology 95, no. 1 (2003): 163–73, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0622.214.171.124. In fact, the percentage of high school students who reported they “did not go to school at least one day in the past month because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school” increased 74 percent from 2009 to 2019.4Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “1991–2019 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data,” accessed March 30, 2021, http://yrbs-explorer.services.cdc.gov/. The increase over this period was even higher (83 percent) for Black students, who are nearly two times more likely to miss school due to safety concerns than their white peers.5Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “1991–2019 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data,” accessed March 30, 2021, http://yrbs-explorer.services.cdc.gov/. With research showing that a quarter of gun homicides in the US occur in neighborhoods in which less than two percent of the country’s population resides,6Aliza Aufrichtig et al., “Want to Fix Gun Violence in America? Go Local.,” The Guardian, January 9, 2017, https://bit.ly/2i6kaKw. Neighborhoods are defined as US census tracts; 1,200 census tracts represent 26 percent of gun homicides and two percent of the population. city, school, and community leaders can take hyper-local action to make the journeys to and from school safer for students of all ages.
One approach that has been shown to improve attendance and reduce crime are Safe Passage programs. These programs deploy school employees, volunteers, and/or professionals to designated streets, bus stops, and/or on bus lines to provide students with safe routes to and from school. Safe Passage programs have been implemented in cities across the country to address a variety of safety concerns, including gun violence, bullying, sexual assault, gang activity, robbery, police harassment, and child abduction, among other concerns.7Michelle Lieberman and Sara Zimmerman, “Taking Back the Streets and Sidewalks: How safe routes to school and community safety initiatives can overcome violence and crime,” Safe Routes Partnership (2015), https://bit.ly/31vjFOA.
Safe Passage programs work best as multi-stakeholder partnerships that allow schools, law enforcement, and community members to promote safety and lower risks of exposure to gun violence and crime within the area. Effective Safe Passage programs identify and train Safe Passage watchers from the surrounding community and local groups, who are most familiar with the community and the student population. The programs provide a tailored strategy for each participating school, giving consideration to the surrounding community, popular routes and means of student travel, and arrival and dismissal times. Safe Passage programs are consistent with the foundational framework of evidence-informed policies that seek to prevent harm by identifying the people and places that drive violence.
Several studies have evaluated the Safe Passage program in Chicago, which was launched in 2009 and employs over 1,000 people, serving more than 160 schools. Contracted community-based organizations recruit, hire, manage, and train Safe Passage watchers. The watchers wear neon jackets and patrol streets designated as “Safe Passage Routes” for approximately two and a half hours in the morning and afternoon when students are commuting to and from school.“8Safe Passage Program,” Chicago Public Schools, accessed April 15, 2021, https://bit.ly/3gffuyW. The City of Chicago has attributed reduced crime along Safe Passage routes, decreased incidents involving students, and increased attendance to the Safe Passage program.9Chicago Public Schools, “Mayor Emanuel and CPS Expand Safe Passage to 14 Additional Schools,” press release, January 21, 2018, https://bit.ly/3e3C7DN; Chicago Public Schools, “Mayor Emanuel and CPS Expand Safe Passage to Serve 160 Schools This Year,” press release, August 30, 2018, https://bit.ly/3mMOcRA; Chicago Public Schools, “Chicago Public Schools Proposed Budget 2013–2014,” 2013, https://bit.ly/2PUrFqh.
Empirical research has found the program has had significant impacts on crime and student outcomes. One study looking at crime trends along routes to high schools from September 2005 to September 2016 found that after the Chicago Safe Passage program was implemented in 2010, the number of offenses on average declined seven percent per school year. During times when watchers were working crime declined 19 percent per school year.10Viviane Sanfelice, “Are Safe Routes Effective? Assessing the Effects of Chicago’s Safe Passage Program on Local Crimes,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 164 (August 2019): 357–73, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2019.06.013. Another study looking at the 2013–2014 school year suggested that the Chicago program contributed to a six to 17 percent reduction in reported crime on Safe Passage routes to elementary schools, compared to other surrounding streets.11F. Chris Curran, “Does the Chicago Safe Passage Program Reduce Reported Crime Around Elementary Schools? Evidence From Longitudinal, Geocoded Crime Data,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 30, no. 9 (December 2019): 1385–1407, https://doi.org/10.1177/0887403418812125; F. Chris Curran, “Why CPS Safe Passage Is Worth the High Cost,” Chicago Sun-Times, December 6, 2018, https://bit.ly/3u7hPQm. And a study looking at crime and student outcomes from January 2001 to August 2016 suggests that the Chicago program was associated with a 14 percent decrease in violent crime on average and a 2.5 percent decrease in the absenteeism rate. The effects of the program continue beyond the first year of implementation, with schools participating for more than two years seeing a roughly 20 percent decrease in violent crime.12Daniel McMillen, Ignacio Sarmiento-Barbieri, and Ruchi Singh, “Do More Eyes on the Street Reduce Crime? Evidence from Chicago’s Safe Passage Program,” Journal of Urban Economics 110 (March 2019): 1–25, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jue.2019.01.001.
Researchers have also suggested that there are cost savings associated with the Chicago Safe Passage program. Noting that the costs of watchers—who, as of 2021, work about five hours per day and are paid $14 an hour13“Safe Passage Program.” —are far less than the costs of a gun homicide or assault, other crime incidents, or training and redeploying additional police officers.14Curran, “Chicago Safe Passage Program”; McMillen, Sarmiento-Barbieri, and Singh, “Do More Eyes on the Street Reduce Crime?”; Sanfelice, “Are Safe Routes Effective?”
These studies highlight the fact that community collaboration and hyper-local strategies can be effective at making communities safer.
Identify the problem
A multi-agency working group with representatives from schools, law enforcement, transportation, parks, public housing, public works, mental health departments, and community organizations should start by assessing the problem.15Gilberto Espinoza et al., “Best and Promising Practices to Address Violence and Personal Safety in Safe Routes to School Programs” (Advancement Project, March 2015), https://bit.ly/2QOYdSB. To do this, this group should interview students, parents, and educators. It should also collect and analyze crime data, identify popular routes to and from school, and assess the conditions along these routes (e.g., sidewalks, lighting, park trails, traffic) to determine if infrastructure improvements are needed.
One key to the success of Safe Passage programs is securing buy-in from the community. By engaging parents, students, educators, elected officials, and a multicultural and diverse group of formal and informal community leaders (e.g,, members of faith-based organizations, social service organizations, violence intervention programs, and the business community), stakeholders can learn from previous efforts made by the community. Stakeholders will also be able to collectively craft goals for the program, identify the safest routes for students, and develop strategies to address any obstacles. Program planners should make extra effort to engage parents by leveraging trusted members of the community in outreach efforts—even though this may be challenging due to language or cultural barriers, parents’ work schedules, or their own safety concerns.16Espinoza et al., “Best and Promising Practices.”
Select Appropriate Program Model
To design the Safe Passage program, planners—with student, parent, and community input—will need to select the most appropriate program model based on their community’s needs.
Safe Passage Programs generally fall into two staffing models:
- Professional or Paraprofessional Model: In this model professional security or trained community members are hired by an individual school, school district, or community-based organization to monitor paths traveled to and from the school. These professionals may be tasked with intervening to de-escalate situations that may turn violent.17Lieberman and Zimmerman, “Taking Back the Streets.” Chicago and Seattle are examples of professional models.
- Volunteer Model: This model utilizes volunteers from the neighborhood to monitor Safe Passage routes (e.g., employees of schools or community organizations, parents, college students, retirees, and veterans). These volunteers are instructed to report any safety concerns to other volunteers, school safety personnel, and/or law enforcement, instead of intervening themselves.18Lieberman and Zimmerman, “Taking Back the Streets.” Los Angeles and Philadelphia are examples of volunteer models.
Variations on or supplements to Safe Passage programs include:
- Corner Captains: Catering more to middle and high school students who may not want to walk to school with an adult, Corner Captains can be a way to increase safety without embarrassing students. Captains are volunteers assigned to street corners along school routes during the morning and afternoon school commute.19Andrew Anglemyer, Tara Horvath, and George Rutherford, “The Accessibility of Guns and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Annals of Internal Medicine 160, no. 2 (2014): 101–10, https://doi.org/10.7326/M13-1301; Matthew Miller et al., “Gun Storage Practices and Rates of Unintentional Gun Deaths in the United States,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 37 (2005): 661–67, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2005.02.003. Corner Captain programs have been implemented in multiple communities including in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, California.“20Become a Corner Captain,” Tenderloin Community Benefit District, accessed April 15, 2021, https://tlcbd.org/join-safe-passage.
- Safe Havens: Businesses along routes to school can be recruited to serve as Safe Havens. These businesses provide an adult presence along the route and offer a safe location where students can seek refuge from a threat, call a parent or law enforcement if necessary, or wait for an adult to pick them up. Participating businesses display a sign in their window alerting students that they are a Safe Haven. Workers at Safe Haven businesses are not tasked with intervening to de-escalate situations.21Lieberman and Zimmerman, “Taking Back the Streets.” Safe Haven programs have been implemented in multiple cities including Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.22“Safe Spot,” City of Cedar Rapids, accessed April 15, 2021, https://bit.ly/3suKu0x.
- Walking School Bus: Walking School Bus programs are generally focused on elementary school students and rely on one or more adults to walk with a group of children. Typically, the walking bus follows a designated route, stops, and timetable so students can join. Programs have been managed by schools, groups of parents, college students, or community organizations.23Lieberman and Zimmerman, “Taking Back the Streets.” Walking School Bus programs have been implemented in many cities including San Antonio, Texas, and Spokane, Washington.24Jim Allen, “Walking School Bus Helps Spokane Children Get to School and Instills Confidence,” Spokesman-Review, September 20, 2018, https://bit.ly/32gl6Rt; Lieberman and Zimmerman, “Taking Back the Streets.”
Depending on the model, recruitment and hiring may be conducted by city government, a school, the school district, or a contracted community-based organization. To ensure the safety of children, individuals assigned to Safe Passage routes typically undergo a background check. However, criminal history is not always a disqualifying criterion as some programs have utilized former gang members and others with credibility within the community as watchers.
Depending on the model chosen, Safe Passage watchers may require training on observation, communication, reporting protocols and report writing, and conflict mediation and de-escalation. They may also require diversity, equity, and inclusion, training, as well as training on implicit bias, and/or first aid. The Chicago Public School system organized training for Safe Passage employees which featured guidance from law enforcement experts trained in group violence dynamics. Training participants engaged in role-playing to practice methods of intervening in potentially dangerous situations.25Kim Vatis, “CPS Begins Training ‘Safe Passage’ Workers,” NBC Chicago, August 16, 2013, https://bit.ly/3yO8wa1. Training also focused on relationship-building and providing support to students.26Chicago Public Schools, “Safe Passage to 14 Additional Schools.”
Safe Passage programs can be funded through federal dollars. The Safe Routes to School program under the US Department of Transportation previously funded Safe Passage Programs and federal grant programs can be used to support community violence intervention models like Safe Passage. Other funding streams are also available. For example, The Chicago Safe Passage program is funded through a mix of school district, city, and state government grants.27Curran, “CPS Safe Passage.”
Monitoring and Evaluation
To ensure success, program managers should continuously collect and analyze data related to the program including crime reports and surveys of students, parents, and watchers. Periodic review of data can help program administrators address problems early and make necessary adjustments.
Strategy in Practice
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
The Cedar Rapids Fire Department, Police Department, and multiple neighborhood coalitions collaborated to recruit businesses to participate in a Safe Haven program, known as Safe Spot. Participating businesses display a sign in their window and serve as a place kids can go if they are concerned about their safety.28“Safe Spot.”
Launched in 2009, the Chicago Safe Passage program employs over 1,000 people and serves more than 160 schools. Contracted community-based organizations recruit, hire, manage, and train Safe Passage watchers. The watchers wear neon jackets and patrol streets designated as “Safe Passage Routes” for approximately two and a half hours in morning and afternoon when students are commuting to and from school. Safe Passage watchers work at an hourly wage of $14 for about five hours a day on weekdays when schools are in session.29“Safe Passage Program.”
Many Safe Passage programs have been implemented across Los Angeles.30Lieberman and Zimmerman, “Taking Back the Streets.” Recently, Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson incorporated the Safe Passage program into his district by collaborating with a local nonprofit, Community Build Inc., to employ local residents to patrol the interior and perimeter of more than a dozen parks in South Los Angeles to ensure the safety of children and families during the school year and in the summertime.31“Empowered Residents Provide Safe Passage,” Los Angeles Sentinel, September 10, 2020, https://bit.ly/3w3cY4e.
Launched in 2013, WalkSafePHL is a Safe Passage program (referred to as a safe corridor program) that was developed through a collaboration between Town Watch Integrated Services (TWIS), the Mayor’s Offices of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service, Education, and Public Safety, the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police and SEPTA Police Departments, and the PhillyRising Collaborative.32“WalkSafePHL,” City of Philadelphia, accessed April 15, 2021, https://bit.ly/3dlIxir. TWIS recruits, screens, and trains volunteers who watch over safe routes, as well as businesses that serve as Safe Havens. Watchers are deployed from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on school days and wear neon vests and photo identification. The watchers are tasked with observing, documenting, and reporting any safety concerns to police.
The Tenderloin Community Benefit District has implemented a Corner Captain program to foster safety and help residents passing through busy streets and intersections. Corner Captains are deployed for two hour shifts twice a day from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Captains must be 18 or older, commit to three or five days per week, and attend an orientation and safety training. Captains can qualify for a $200 or $300 stipend.33“Become a Corner Captain”; Farida Jhabvala Romero, “Creating a Safe Passage for Kids in San Francisco’s Gritty Tenderloin,” KQED, May 31, 2018, https://bit.ly/3du5Iaf.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of King County launched a Safe Passage program in 2015. The program deploys teams of two to three people to five hotspots in the Rainier Beach community where youth socialize after school. Team members receive training on de-escalation and relationship building and are tasked with making referrals to services.34“Rainier Beach Safe Passage,” Rainier Beach Safe Place for Youth, accessed April 19, 2021, https://bit.ly/3dyrNoq; Nina Shapiro, “Seattle Protest Leaders Call for Defunding and Dismantling Police. What Would That Look Like?,” Seattle Times, June 14, 2020, https://bit.ly/32se1gz.
Newsroom & Resources
Safe Routes Partnership
Safe Routes Partnership is a national not for profit organization advocating for safe school routes.
Article on Chicago’s Safe Passage
Chicago’s ‘Safe Passage’ Curbs Street Violence Without Police Studies Show (NPR, June 2019)
Article on San Francisco’s Safe Passage
Creating a Safe Passage for Kids in San Francisco’s Gritty Tenderloin (KQED, May 2018)
Article on Seattle community leaders views on reimagining public safety
Seattle Protest Leaders Call for Defunding and Dismantling Police? What Would That Look Like? (Seattle Times, 2020)