The final bell still echoes in the hall when the first students spill out of the school, shouting, laughing, and walking down the neighborhood streets. Some head home. Some head toward jobs. Others head toward trouble.
With the eyes and the ears of Lansing School Watch volunteers on them, the ones that initially head toward trouble may seek a different destination.
Launched in June 2014 as a pilot project, Lansing School Watch expanded in late August 2014 to encompass the neighborhoods near the city’s three high schools (Lansing Eastern, Lansing Everett, J.W. Sexton) and plans call for expansion to the streets near the city’s middle schools in the near future and eventually, to elementary school neighborhoods. Volunteers wearing easily identifiable hats and safety vests walk, bike or cruise the streets near the schools for an hour before and an hour after classes, serving as non-confrontational eyes and ears for the local police and as a visible presence to remind students that responsible, committed adults are watching out for them. Volunteers are encouraged to engage in positive contacts with the students and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.
“This not only makes sure that the students have a safe environment, it’s also an opportunity for neighbors and citizens to get involved. It also provides extra protection for them. Sometimes kids would meet up not far from the school and get into a fight, or a loud boisterous wave of kids walking through a neighborhood would cause disruption. Sometimes they would bully other students, or take over a street and not let them walk through,” says Lansing Police Chief Mike Yankowski. “While it was still in the planning stages, we had five students injured in a shooting incident about a block and a half from one of our high schools. It was an instance where students met up and started a fight, only this time gunfire erupted in the neighborhood. That really resonated that this was the right thing to do.”
The costs involved in launching the program were minimal: vests, hats, car rental and decals, cell phones, promotional brochures. Yankowski explains that rented cars are available for volunteers’ use, particularly in inclement weather, but they are encouraged to walk or bike in nicer weather to be a more visible presence. In all, startup costs came to approximately $25,000, with Sparrow Health System, a local community hospital, donating $10,000. Lansing School District and the city of Lansing also partnered in the police department efforts, which included training for the volunteers and assemblies in the high schools to introduce the program.
“We’re pitching this to the community as a civic duty, and we tried to educate the students about being good and respectful neighbors,” he says. “We also went out to the local community college and universities and encouraged them to take it on as a project, and we have a number of volunteers who are students. Most of the rest are adults over the age of 50, many of them retired.”
“The safety of our students, not only while in school, but on their way to and from school is a top priority for the city of Lansing. The primary mission of this initiative is to provide an additional layer of security empowering not only the neighborhoods which the students travel through, but also empowering the students themselves,” says Yankowski. “The volunteers have enjoyed what they’re doing to this point, and we haven’t had any issues where they’ve had to step in. They’re a visible presence in the neighborhood, and the kids feel somebody is out there looking out for them.”