Jessie Thompson’s kids, ages 9, 10 and 11, would like to walk home together, but Spann Elementary School in Summerville, South Carolina, won’t let them leave without an adult.
When Thompson asked if she could sign some sort of waiver, the school said no. If an adult does not pick the kids up, they must take the bus – even though it takes longer than the 20-minute walk. And especially in a time of Covid, being outside would seem to make more sense.
While other elementary schools in the area allow kids to walk home, Principal Shane Sanford put his foot down and the school district backed him up. The Thompsons hired an attorney who implored the district to reverse course.
When I called Sanford last week, I was forwarded to the district’s public information officer, Pat Raynor, who said, “I cannot go into specifics because of family privacy.” Well, what about a generic family wanting their kids to walk home, I asked.
“I will say just that in general the policies and guidelines in place for our schools regarding the safety of our children and staff depend on things such as the location of the school,” Raynor replied. Principal Sanford apparently believes the streets around his school are too dangerous for children to navigate.
To get to the school, pedestrians must cross a 4-lane highway which has a crosswalk with stoplights and Walk/Don’t Walk signs. (See photo.) The Thompson kids do this all the time, on their own, on their way to piano and martial arts lessons.
As walkers, they are part of dwindling breed. Today, only 10% of American kids walk to school, down from about 50% in 1969. But the exercise, confidence, and fresh air afforded by walking are good for kids. Clearly kids today are as smart, strong and capable of street-crossing as their parents were at their age.
Who gets to decide what is best for a child?
In the 2015 Every Child Succeeds Act, Sen. Mike Lee (R, UT) inserted a “Free-Range Kids” amendment stating that nothing should “prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission.”
The Thompsons would love South Carolina to pass its own bill allowing parents to give their kids some reasonable independence. And in fact last year, just such a bill, S. 79, sponsored by Sens. Vincent Sheheen (D) and Wes Climer (R.), passed the South Carolina Senate unanimously. But Covid closed the legislature before the House could vote on it.
This coming year, we are hopeful the bill will be re-introduced. It does not sanction neglect, or tie the authorities’ hands. It simply states that, absent a blatant disregard for safety, parents should be allowed to decide what’s best for their kids. A law like this works for parents who deliberately choose to give their kids some unsupervised time, but also for parents who have little choice. For instance, S. 79 would have spared single mom Debra Harrell from being thrown in jail for letting her daughter, age 9, play at a nearby park on a summer’s day while she worked her shift at McDonald’s.
The Thompsons have started a Go Fund Me campaign to pay an attorney seeking permission on behalf of all Summerville parents to sign independent walker waivers.
But for the time being, the Thompson kids are taking the bus, or their mom comes to get them. In an act of minor defiance, Thompson picked them up last Monday but did not bring her school-issued “parent walker tag”—a card identifying her as the children’s mom and designated walking chaperone. This drew a stern rebuke from Sanford, who accused her of undermining the “safety of students and staff.”
The obvious solution would be for the school to let parents sign independent walker waivers. And the sooner South Carolina passes a Reasonable Childhood Independence Act, the better.