Published 8:47 am Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Senate Education Committee considered and quickly approved a measure that its author says will help communities protect kids walking to or from school as they pass through dangerous areas. “Imagine being afraid to walk home from school because you don’t know what you’ll encounter on your way,” said Houston Senator Sylvia Garcia. “That is the reality for many children across this state.” She recounted the story of the death of 11 year-old Josue Flores, who was stabbed and killed as he walked home from an afterschool science program in Garcia’s own Northside neighborhood in Houston. This tragic incident led the community to establish a program to monitor and patrol the common routes that school children use to travel to and from school, but Garcia said that incidents like this happen too often around the state.

In 2016 alone, Garcia says, there have been a number of children attacked on the way home from school. Two 13-year-old girls, Lauren Landavazo and Makayla Smith, were shot on their way home from school in Wichita Falls, killing Lauren and seriously injuring Makayla. She also told of Omar Cabrera, an eighth-grader from Beaumont who was beaten and robbed as he walked home and Hunter Parker, a Humble ISD student who was attacked on the way home while his assailants filmed the incident. Many children, she said, walk home from school every day through dangerous and scary places. “They see drug use on the streets, people sleeping on the sidewalks, petty and violent crimes throughout the neighborhood and in broad daylight,” said Garcia. “Unfortunately in some neighborhoods in this great state, dangers like this are more common than not.”

Though many communities have stepped up to create neighborhood programs to protect kids on the way home or walking to school, the programs require trained volunteers, as well as time and resources that may not be readily available.   Current law allows a district to apply for an additional 10 percent in transportation funds to help transport kids that live within 2 miles of their school campus and would face common transportation hazards like overpasses and railway crossings. Garcia’s bill, SB 195, would add areas presenting a high risk of violence to this program.   Because even additional state funds might not be enough to hire additional buses and drivers, it would allow this funding to go towards programs that seek to establish safe routes for kids to walk to school and home.

The bill doesn’t specify how these safety programs operate, but Garcia pointed to programs like Safe Walk Home, a grass-roots effort that formed in the wake of the death of Josue Flores. These programs work to establish safe corridors for students walking to and from school. “These safe passages are designed to keep kids away from the most dangerous areas of their commute, with volunteers monitoring these corridors on a daily basis,” said Garcia.   Volunteers would not be armed and would report suspicious people or activity to law enforcement, she said. Garcia believes their mere presence will serve as a deterrent to criminals along the route.

Typically the Education Committee holds bills pending the day they are first heard and votes on them in a subsequent meeting, but committee Chair and Friendswood Senator Larry Taylor permitted a vote on the measure Tuesday. “We have a number of folks here from Northside and that area and I think it would be fitting for Josue if we do this today,” he said. The bill passed the committee 8-1 and will now head to the full Senate for consideration.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, April 26 at 11 a.m.