Safe Passage for Youth in Lancaster

Peace in the Park

Violent fighting among high school students walking home after school through Reservoir Park in Lancaster, Pa., miraculously ended after a few “Safe Passage” volunteers began monitoring the park peacefully, with smiles.

Safe Passage evolved as a ministry of common cup (a small emergent church group in Lancaster), after Mike, a participant, attended a 2009 Christian PeacemakerTeams (CPT) event in Lancaster.Frank, mediation coordinator for the school district, also attended this event.  As CPTers shared their experiences of peacefully, safely patrolling Palestinian schoolchildren walking to and from school, Frank thought about students in Lancaster, who walk home after school through Reservoir Park. Almost daily, crowds were gathering and fights erupting into a melee requiring police intervention. He immediately began brainstorming about a similar patrol to diminish fighting while increasing safety for other students walking home through the park. This idea resonated with Mike, who brought the challenge to common cup.

common cup participants discussed developing a presence in the park, talking about it several times during their mealtime fellowship. Another common cup participant, Louise Pippin (Pip), took the initiative to schedule a time for school district officials to meet with common cup to better understand the situation and explore how we might be involved in establishing a CPT-type "friendly presence" in the park.  With careful discernment and Pip's leadership skills, volunteers were organized and details of monitoring the park were worked out under the direction of retired policeman, Bill Gleason, now Public Safety Coordinator for School District of Lancaster.

common cup's emphasis on a peaceful nonviolent presence appealed to Mr. Gleason in his discouragement and frustration with controlling the fighting in the park. Two groups had previously tried and failed to monitor the park. One group came with a political agenda, but vanished quickly when their efforts failed to accomplish their goals.  Money issues and fear discouraged the second group who asked to carry guns in the park, promising the guns would not be seen by students!

Mr. Gleason explained to volunteers the friendly presence needed in Reservoir Park between 3:15 and 3:45 as students walk home after school. He explained the need for only a few volunteers with cell phones as a presence to do nothing in the park: just BE there as you would if you were having a family picnic, observing what's happening around you. Be an active nonviolent presence. If you notice trouble brewing, do not intervene; rather, call on the Safety Resource Officers (SROs), employees of the school district.  A call to the SROs allows them to intervene quickly to control fighting as well as more effectively monitor other areas along the route home for students.

April 19, 2010, found a few of us pensively pacing Reservoir Park, anticipating arrival of students, eager, yet terrified to be the first to spot "trouble."  School administration had informed students of our friendly presence in the park to enhance safety.

As students began making their way through the park, we were not sure who was more carefully scrutinized- - - students, or Safe Passage volunteers in our yellow T-shirts with "Safe Passage" printed on the back!

As it turned out, there was no trouble in the park that day, or the next, or the next. . . .  We continued our vigil in the park, cautiously, in amazement, counting the weeks with no fights in Reservoir Park, wondering how long this reprieve could last.  After all, fighting at least three times a week had been the norm.  It was amazing!

Then came warmer weather. We had been cautioned of even more trouble after the weather turns warmer. Students become boldly belligerent towards the SROs, and fighting becomes a melee as the whole crowd gets involved -- informing friends of an impending fight is simple via cell phone!

SROs, who referred to us as "Bill's Peace Corps,” were amazed throughout the spring of 2010 as quiet reigned in Reservoir Park, previously the scene almost daily of violent fighting. Since initiation of Safe Passage, SRO patrols have been called only two or three times when one of us sensed trouble brewing.

Never once did any student threaten us.  In fact, once during her stint in the park, a volunteer was picking up some rather large sticks after a storm when a burly student cautioned her to be careful she that she not hurt herself!  Some students regularly talked with whoever was near their path. We always gave them a smile, occasionally a positive, or hopefully somewhat interesting, comment.  For many students our smile is the only one they get all day.

Just before the last day of school, Safe Passage attracted TV media attention as they handed out several hundred free freeze pops to students, thanking them for no fights in the park this season.  While students excitedly scrambled for their favorite color, one of the grandma types of our group jovially cautioned them to let her cut open the wrapper, and save their teeth!  Many students instantly ripped the wrapper with their teeth, while about half of them allowed the help.  Several leaders of even the seemingly most hard core groups accepted a freeze pop, making it safe for that entire group to come and choose their favorite freeze pops.

We marveled at the good manners displayed by students; some who appeared the most troubled expressed appreciation or thanked us for the snack. We asked that our appreciation for their manners be included in morning announcements the next day.  Certainly God's seed had been planted in those students; our smiling, friendly presence watered by doing nothing.

September 2010 found us again posted in Reservoir Park.  Happily we acquired three new volunteers from the community who were actively involved in park maintenance. One of them was Paul, who lived across the street from the park and often helplessly witnessed the awful afternoon fights.  He came out to learn what we had done to stop the fighting.  We told him we simply did nothing --whereupon Paul joined us on the regular schedule, doing nothing in the park, to stop the fighting.

Safe Passage continued in Reservoir Park through the 2010-2011 school year, and is currently active in maintaining safety, still with no fights.  Students expressed appreciation for our presence making their walk through the park less threatening, as they were interviewed by the local newspaper for an article about Safe Passage. 

While a few troublesome incidents disappointed us, SROs quickly responded, maintaining the record: no fights in the park since April 19, 2010. In fact, crowds of students walking home through the park dwindled as “no fighting” in the park became the norm.

We praise God for this awesome work through a friendly presence in Reservoir Park, doing nothing.