A back-to-school question with no easy answer: Can I walk home alone?

Comment on this storyIn a moment of optimism, while shopping for back-to-school supplies, I added two keychains to my cart.For my soon-to-be 11-year-old son, whose favorite creature in the world is his pet bearded dragon named “Nacho,” I picked out a silver keychain that featured an engraving of the reptile and the words, “Got crickets?”For my 9-year-old son — who loves pandas so much he convinced me to sew him a stuffed one during the pandemic despite my lack of sewing skills — I chose a keychain with a bamboo-eating bear that was cute but not so cute that it would embarrass a fourth-grade boy.Excuse me while I walk my dragon: a nod to the weirdness of motherhoodWhen I showed them to my sons on a recent morning, their mouths opened in a quiet gasp. Then they hugged me. They liked the designs, but more so, they liked what those keychains represented: a chance at some independence. They knew those small gifts meant I was considering letting them walk home from school alone this year.In previous years, that was never an option. Their public elementary school, which they started attending in pre-K and stayed in even as the school moved into a different building and we moved into a different home, was located far from where we lived. They had to be driven to and from that school.But in preparation of this year, my husband and I made the easy and difficult decision to transfer them into public schools in our neighborhood. Easy because it would simplify our days. Difficult because it meant they would have to navigate new routines and new spaces without the familiar faces of their friends around them. There are few titles more nerve-racking to hold than “the new kid” but that’s what they are going to be come Monday, when my older son walks into his new middle school and my younger son walks into his new elementary school.They are understandably nervous, and truthfully, I’m nervous for them. I have mentally repeated more times than I can count in recent days the words all parents of new kids say when they think about how other kids will already have cliques and BFFs — please be nice to my kids, please be nice to my kids, please be nice to my kids.I can’t control the friendships my children make. But I can control how much independence they have, and this year they have expressed a desire to have more. The main benefit of living blocks from their schools is that they can now walk to and from those buildings. When I first told them that, as a way to build their excitement for the transition, they both asked me the same question: “Will we be able to walk home alone?”It’s a question that should have an easy answer, and maybe if we lived in a different time and place it would. But in the Washington region, drivers regularly speed through school zones and blow through stop signs, and that makes deciding when a child is ready to walk alone to and from school far from easy.I suspected that before my children were old enough to ask me that question. Now, I empathize with all the parents who have had to weigh the uncertain calculations that decision brings.When I attended middle school in Texas, I was a latchkey kid. I took two public buses and walked a block to get home. Most days, I opened the front door with my key, but I tended to forget it at least once a week. On those days, I would climb through a kitchen window and hope the neighbors weren’t watching. Because of my own experiences, I believe children should have as much independence as they can safely and reasonably handle. My children have said they are ready to walk by themselves, and I want to give them that freedom. I also want to keep them alive.That’s not the dramatic statement of a mother with imagined fears. I say that as someone who regularly drives in the region and as a journalist who has written about how area roads in recent years have grown more dangerous.At 5, she was killed riding her bike in a crosswalk. Her legacy should be safer streets.There are few scenes more haunting than a child’s ghost bike, and one of the most haunting ones in D.C. belongs to Allison “Allie” Hart. She was 5 in 2021 when the driver of a van hit her as she rode her bike through a crosswalk with her father nearby. Her death was heartbreaking, which only made what happened afterward more disturbing. After a memorial for her appeared on the corner, drivers continued to speed by it and blow through stop signs. Not even that reminder of her death made them slow down.Less than a month later, a video that appeared on social media showed two young children lying on a different D.C. road, their backpacks tossed aside. They had been struck and injured while walking to school on National Walk to School Day.Children should be able to walk and bike to school safely. But, in D.C., four have been hit in crosswalks in less than four weeks.I wrote about both those incidents in earlier columns. I also wrote last year about how a study found that drivers — despite signs indicating they should slow down and watch out for children — were speeding and getting into crashes in school zones at about the same rate as along other roads. That study focused on D.C., but similar concerns have also been raised in Virginia and Maryland. The City of Alexandria recently installed automated enforcement speed cameras near four schools. One intersection near a city middle school, according to a report from WJLA-TV, has had about 50 crashes during school hours in the last five years.Cities and counties, of course, need to do more than install cameras to get closer to the Vision Zero goals they have set toward ending traffic injuries and fatalities. But ultimately it’s on drivers to slow down and pay attention, especially near libraries, especially around parks, especially in school zones.Whether to let a child walk home alone is a personal decision that depends on many factors — their age, their maturity level, the route, the distance, the general safety of a neighborhood. I considered all of that before buying those keychains.In recent weeks, I have talked to my children about road safety. We have also practiced as a family walking the routes they will need to travel to get to and from school. When they go to school on Monday, those keychains will have keys on them, but they won’t have to use them — not yet. They won’t walk by themselves that first week. They also might not the second week. We will decide as a family when they are ready.But that day will come this year and when it does, I’ll be mentally repeating different words to myself — please drive safely, please drive safely, please drive safely.

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