Safe Routes to School: It Takes More Than Just a Stop Sign

What does it take to keep kids safe on their way to school? Stop signs and crosswalks only go so far. That’s where the work of Lale Santelices, PBOT’s Safe Routes to School (SRTS) coordinator, comes into play.

“It doesn’t matter how many signs I put up or how many crosswalks I paint,” she said. “If as a society, as a school community, we don’t come together to support our youth, there’s no safety.”

It’s not just traffic that can make it difficult for students to walk or bike to school. Everything from bullying to lack of infrastructure can factor in. Santelices’ holistic approach includes things like working with the Portland Police Bureau to train a new crossing guards and partnering with organizations like Portland United Against Hate (PUAH) to host community forums.

In the past, most of these efforts focused on making routes to elementary schools safer. But recently Santelices’ team has reached out to middle schools to develop an age-appropriate curriculum for older students. Santelices is currently piloting an afterschool program with Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) at Harrison Park Middle School to learn more about students’ safety needs and attendance barriers.

“In elementary (school), it’s very much informing kids of what the world is,” she said. “And in middle school, it’s more of an adult understanding what their experiences are.”

These connections also give youth an opportunity to help build safer school environments and think about how they want the city to evolve when they’re adults.

“When you plan, you talk to people in 2019 for things that are going to happen in 2030,” Santelices said. “So why don’t we talk to the youth of today to figure out how they want their city to be like when they are the change agents?”