A rather non-descript bridge on Sherry Street in east Arlington was built as a much-needed lifeline, giving students leaving Lynn Hale Elementary a shortcut into their neighborhood of single-family bungalows, townhomes and apartment dwellings.
Things were perfectly fine … until they weren’t.
That’s when Hale Principal Claudia Morales Herrera began hearing an assortment of complaints from parents displeased with the amount of disgusting graffiti popping up underneath the bridge in full view of their impressionable young children as they trekked to and from school grounds.
Graffiti might be a nice way of putting it, actually. There’s a wide range of perceptions concerning this age-old craft that often hovers somewhere around artistry, cultural value, mindless vandalism and simply outright crudeness. Parents weren’t all that divided with what their children noticed on a daily basis.
Let’s say it wasn’t PG.
So in order to find a solution, neighbors banned together to paint murals over the graffiti, getting help from not only local businesses like Home Depot and a real estate firm, but also the Arlington Police Department.
One problem down … but there was one more to go.
Turns out a second, more insular situation had been simmering for some time near that bridge and out of sight of school staff. “We were getting these reports of kids being harassed near the bridge and them being quite afraid of walking home,” Herrera told me.
This wasn’t just bullying from classmates. This was kids being shoved and pushed and punched and frightened by older kids and even older adults often seen lurking nearby, or even standing near or on the bridge, as if waiting.
“Conflict was brought into out school” is how Herrera explained it. So she reached out to the partner she knew could help. APD.
Officers assigned to the department’s East District were already a hefty presence in the school, showing up for neighborhood watch meetings, of course, but also events like the Daddy Daughter Dance and Multicultural Night. They even tutored students.
East District Police Lieutenant Becki Brandenburg began assigning patrol officers such as Sergeants Robert Walsh and JaNae Powell to the bridge. They’d arrive shortly before the final bell and around 3:30 p.m. were in place to walk with students as they left the school and crossed the bridge.
Herrera was well aware of the potential trouble here. She connected the graffiti situation with the “Broken Windows” concept, which suggests that in places with a multitude of broken windows the assumption is that no one is watching or even attempting to deter bad behavior. So it continues.
“You don’t want to have that perception,” Herrera says.
This longtime principal understands how academic achievement isn’t always an absolute measure of a student’s intelligence. Student behavior plays a major role, and that behavior often changes when the ability to learn is impacted by outside forces, such as being afraid of what awaits you after math class.
“You have to be able to address the emotional behaviors of these kids before you can even begin the learning process,” Herrera says. “It’s important. You don’t want to spend too much classroom time trying to deal with things that are occurring outside of your own walls. It just doesn’t work.”
Police officers were more than happy to stroll along with the students as they left the school and crossed the bridge. Not only did the APD step in to help quiet distressing activity in the area during dismissal but they took ownership by naming this unique partnership “The Bridge Kids.”
Something unexpected happened in the process, as well.
Police officers appeared, well, human.
“These were the same kids who referred to officers as ‘The Po-Po,’ people to be afraid of,” Herrera says.
Now these “Bridge Kids” look forward to having patrol officers stroll with them, even running to them “giving them high fives,” says Herrera. “They ask about them when they are not here. What a change.”
Columnist Kenneth Perkins has been a contributing writer for Arlington Today since it debuted. He is a freelance writer, editor and photographer.