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Mid-City CAN Blog

Safe Passages tries to protect students

 

Eugene Johnson runs the Mid-City Safe Passages program.
Eugene Johnson (center in black) runs the Mid-City Safe Passages program where he trains parents to help keep students safe on their way to and from school. His training includes a mix of basic “martial arts training and streets awareness.”

For children in City Heights, getting to school can be a challenge, but one program aims to make it a little easier to make it to class

Mid-City Safe Passages is a grassroots program with parent volunteers, who stand on busy street corners in blue vests to discourage unsafe behavior and keep a watchful eye on children. It is funded by a grant from The California Endowment. Mid-City CAN is the City Heights hub for this and other Building Healthy Communities Initiative grants.

Eugene Johnson created the Safe Passages program, modeled on similar work he saw in southeastern San Diego, around six years ago, he said.

“It’s very important for parents to be out in the community to be able to stop all this,” Johnson said. “I truly believe that the parents get more respect from these individuals than the police. …

“When they see a police officer, kids tend to try to be all bad.”

In addition, to the deterrence of seeing a parent or a friend’s parent out on the streets, Johnson said there is a good learning potential for parents as well.

“By parents being out and being aware of those things, it makes it safer to get those kids to the school campus,” he said.

When volunteers see a dangerous situation, they alert school security officers with two-way radios they carry. Those school officers call emergency personnel if necessary.

The program centers on six City Heights schools: Crawford High School, Horace Mann Middle School, Marshall Elementary School, Fay Elementary School, Ibarra Elementary School, Euclid Elementary School and a charter school founded by Pacific Islanders.

Currently, the program has 24 parent volunteers, but Johnson’s vision is to expand it to 75. He is not wasting any time. When talking about the program on Aug. 16, he said he was ordering vests for additional volunteers.

One of the program’s long-time volunteers is Melvin Harris. Despite Harris’ child being 30-something now, Harris “just wanted to do something to help the kids,” he said.

Harris said he averages two days a week on patrol

“So many kids walk back and forth that are afraid to walk to school,” he said.

Harris and other Safe Passages volunteers are trying to change that.

“I don’t tolerate any fighting,” Harris said. “I just hate that I can’t be there every day.”

Johnson describes the training for volunteers as a mix of basic “martial arts training and streets awareness.”

But the volunteers most powerful weapon might be the relationships they build with the students.

“When [students] walk out of schools in the afternoon, they have that confidence to say, ‘Hey there is going to be a fight,’“ Johnson said. “They trust in you knowing that you will be able to prevent that fight that was going to happen.

“That is a big change.”

Another danger that the volunteers try to reduce is speeding. Many drivers also seem to be getting the message.

“You have some that when they see those blue vests they respect that, because they see now that there is safety for those kids on that corner,” he said.

Start times for the volunteers are staggered. Some start from 6:45 to 7:30 a.m. Some start at 8:30 a.m. Some volunteers work in the afternoons from 2 to 3:30 p.m. to ensure a safe trip home for students. Volunteers also call in reports of juveniles out during school hours to the police department for truancy sweeps

The goal is to avoid the “danger of the streets and gang activities,” Johnson said. “These kids are just being bullied, and being introduced into drugs and crime.”

This summer, volunteers have kept busy.

They have been roving the streets trying to make them safer, Johnson said. They have done late night checks at Colina del Sol Park and other areas where problems could arise.

Johnson is a busy man, too. In addition to managing Safe Passages, he is a master of Hawaiian Kenpo martial arts. He founded Unity Tech Fitness School, where he is executive director, and teaches the fighting style. He is also a preacher at the Church of Christ in Yuma, Ariz. He commutes to Arizona on the weekends.

But Johnson said his connection to City Heights and San Diego is strong.

“I was born and raised here in the City of San Diego,” he said. “I saw the dangers when “my friends and I were “growing up, and [I’m ready to] step up to the plate.”

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