Newark’s ‘Safe Passage’ program, meant to ease school commutes, is set to expand

Most days that students see Shayne Love on the street corner near the entrance of Malcolm X Shabazz High School, he’s smiling and waving, making sure they’re out of harm’s way. But one episode last week brought him to tears.

Love, who is an outreach worker with Newark Community Street Team’s Safe Passage program, noticed that one of the students he regularly escorts across the busy intersection in front of the school hadn’t come that day. Later, he learned that the student’s father had been killed, and the distraught student couldn’t bring himself to come to school.

So Love went beyond his usual duty of helping students cross the road — he reached out to the student.

Every morning and afternoon for the past two years, Love has not only helped students get to and from school, but he’s also helped them through difficult personal situations.

“You shouldn’t have to be worried about going to school and coming home from school. You should be worried about your next test and next class,” he said. “I think we help them focus on that — just being students.”

Soon, even more Newark students will get a guide like Love on their path to school. The Safe Passage program, which launched in 2014 with 16 outreach workers at four schools, is set to grow to 11 schools this fall — and could keep expanding, according to Superintendent Roger León’s plan for the school district. However, their expansion this fall is funded by the South Ward Children’s Alliance.

At each of the seven schools in the South and West wards where the program operated this past school year, multiple outreach workers stand near the entrances of schools from 7:30-9 a.m. when school starts and 2:30-4 p.m. when school ends. 

Their charge: to eliminate one of the concerns that keeps students from getting to school. A study conducted by Newark high school and college students last year concluded that fears of gang violence on the path to school contribute to students missing school.

In addition, the outreach workers also mentor students and monitor conflicts that arise between them. Sometimes they’re called to the school to intervene in conflicts, while other times they mediate directly when they see tension emerge. By building rapport with students through daily interactions, they ideally want to stop conflicts before they start.

The program draws on similar projects in Los Angeles and Chicago, where gang violence can pose threats for students commuting to school. As school choice reshaped Chicago’s school landscape, violence surged when students from different neighborhoods and gang affiliations were thrown together. One high-profile student murder gave rise to a program there that now serves 160 schools, with more than 1,300 Safe Passage workers. Crime dropped along those routes and, a recent study found, also fell beyond the streets supervised through the program. 

Aqeela Sherrills is the co-founder of the Newark Community Street Team, the program behind ‘Safe Passage.’ (Devna Bose/Chalkbeat)

Newark’s program is smaller-scale, but it has lofty ambitions. Co-founder Aqeela Sherrills says the group shares a vision with Mayor Ras Baraka to redefine public safety in Newark. Instead of law enforcement having the sole responsibility for safety, Baraka and Sherrills believe, communities should play a role as well. 

“Violence is a public health issue,” Sherrills said. “The reason why there’s so much crime is that there is a lack of investment and infrastructure of people in these communities. The response has been law enforcement, but there’s been no deployment of therapists and healers.”

He sees the Safe Passage workers as healers. They are deployed to public and charter schools with troubling safety situations where conditions suggest that the Newark Community Street Team can make an impact. “We’d like to tackle the most challenging schools first,” Sherrills said.

This fall, the program will expand to four elementary schools, in an effort to quell concerns about adults crossing younger students’ paths. The schools are Belmont Runyon School, Dr. George Washington Carver, Avon, and Chancellor Avenue.

The number of schools with Safe Passage workers could soon grow again, under León’s Clarity 2020 plan. In keeping with León’s belief that improving students’ lives outside of school can translate into higher attendance and achievement, that plan calls for the city education department to coordinate “with the Public Safety Department and the City of Newark to build from the South Ward Community Schools Initiative and create Safe Passages and Safe Haven plans in every Ward.” 

Expanding was the street team’s plan all along, since the need is so high, Sherrills said. 

“These kids, what they’re witnessing is horrific. They’re suffering in silence,” he said. “One’s safety is central to an individual being able to be educated.”

The expansion could face challenges — from how the expansion will be funded to Newark Public Schools’ policy that bars the formerly incarcerated from working in local schools. 

Many Newark Community Street Team members have criminal records, which is partially why Sherrills thinks they do their job so effectively. As long as their record doesn’t include “crimes against children,” Sherrills said he considers their debt to society paid. According to him, all Safe Passage workers are currently allowed to work at schools, but it’s a policy the street team is petitioning to have changed formally.

“Our team members have to be residents of Newark, but some are also credible messengers and nontraditional leaders, like ex-gang members and ex-drug dealers,” Sherrills said. “They command respect from the youth and young adult population and have changed their lives for the positive.”

Love, the outreach worker at Malcolm X Shabazz High School and lifelong Newark resident, served 17 years in prison for drug-related offenses.

“I did a lot of things in Newark that I’m not proud of. This is my way of giving back,” he said.

Love missed most of his four children’s high school years. He said he’s making up for lost time and living vicariously through watching the students at Malcolm X Shabazz High School grow up.

“That right there is a reward within itself,” he said.

Though statistics aren’t available until the fall about the program’s effects in Newark, Malcolm X Shabazz junior Keily Duarte said students’ behavior improved when they saw more adults outside the school. She sees Love every day during the school year and hopes the program continues to expand.

“When I see him, it makes me feel happy and safe,” she said on a recent afternoon at the end of the school year.

After the school bell rang, Love helped her cross the street, and she headed toward home.