Free-Range Kids

Public School Forces Kids To Take the Bus Home. Walking Is Faster.

A mother of three children—ages 9, 10, and 11—just can't convince the principal to let them walk home.


Jessie Thompson's kids, ages 9, 10 and 11, would like to walk home together, but James H. Spann Elementary School in Summerville, South Carolina, won't let them leave without an adult.

When Thompson asked if she could sign some sort of waiver, the assistant principal told her: "Students will not be allowed to walk home by themselves." If an adult does not pick them up, the kids must take the bus. The bus ride actually takes longer than the 20 minute walk. Moreover, in the era of COVID-19, walking is arguably safer—and certainly more comfortable.

While other elementary schools in the area allow kids to walk home, Principal Shane Sanford put his foot down and the school district backed him up. In response, Thompson hired an attorney, Ashley Ameika, who wrote the district on October 14, imploring them to reverse course. The school has refused to change its policy.

When I called Sanford last week, I was forwarded to the district's public information officer, Pat Raynor, who said, "I cannot go into specifics because of family privacy." Well, what about a generic family wanting their kids to walk home, I asked.

"I will say just that in general the policies and guidelines in place for our schools regarding the safety of our children and staff depend on things such as the location of the school," Raynor replied. Sanford apparently believes the streets around his school are too dangerous for children to navigate.

To get to the school, pedestrians must cross a four-lane highway, which has a crosswalk with stoplights and Walk/Don't Walk signs. The Thompson kids do this all the time, on their own, on their way to piano and martial arts lessons.

As walkers, they are part of dwindling breed. Today, only 10 percent of U.S. kids walk to school, down from about 50 percent in 1969. But the exercise, confidence, and fresh air afforded by walking are good for kids.

In the 2015 Every Child Succeeds Act, Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) inserted a "free-range kids" amendment stating that nothing should "prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission."

The Thompsons would love South Carolina to pass its own bill allowing parents to give their kids some reasonable independence. And in fact, last year, just such a bill passed the South Carolina State Senate unanimously. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced the legislature to close before the State House could vote on it.

The bill did not sanction neglect, or tie the authorities' hands. It simply recognized that parents generally know and love their kids best, and absent blatant disregard for safety, they should be allowed to decide what's best. A law like this works for parents who choose to give their kids some unsupervised time, but also for parents who, by dint of circumstance, have little choice. For instance, such a law would have spared single mom Debra Harrell from being thrown in jail for letting her daughter, age 9, play at a nearby park on a summer's day while she worked her shift at McDonald's.

The Thompsons have started a Go Fund Me campaign to pay an attorney seeking permission on behalf of all Summerville parents to sign independent walker waivers. But for the time being, the Thompson kids are taking the bus, or their mom comes to get them. In an act of minor defiance, Thompson picked them up last Monday but did not bring her school-issued "parent walker tag"—a card identifying her as the children's mom and designated walking chaperone. This was the second time she committed this infraction, and thus her actions drew a stern rebuke from Sanford, who accused her of undermining the "safety of students and staff."

The obvious solution would be for the school to let parents sign independent walker waivers. And the sooner South Carolina passes a Reasonable Childhood Independence Act, the better.