Rainier Beach community demands free bus passes for students

Oct 16, 2015, 8:07 PM | Updated: Oct 19, 2015, 2:44 pm
Seattle’s Rainier Beach community is gathering this month to demand the city and school distr...
Seattle's Rainier Beach community is gathering this month to demand the city and school district find a way to fund free bus passes for students. (SDOT)

Two miles.

For different people, that distance can mean many things. It’s 10,560 feet, or 3,218.688 meters. It’s the width of the asteroid that recently passed frightfully close to Earth, setting science bloggers on guard. It’s the length of many coal trains; a concern for environmental communities. It’s how far an athlete would have to run to burn approximately 124 calories.

But in Seattle, it’s where the school district draws the line between helping students get to class, and not.

“If you live less than two miles from school you get no help with transportation,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary for the Transit Riders Union, an organization of people working to preserve, expand and improve public transportation. “And this is a big issue for students from low-income families, especially since the youth metro fare has been going up and up.”

On Oct. 22, students, teachers, staff and parents from Rainier Beach High School will gather at their school for a call to action. Along with the Transit Riders Union, the community wants the Seattle City Council, mayor and school district to find a way to fund bus passes for any student who needs one. Seattle City Council members Tom Rasmussen and Bruce Harrell are slated to attend.

Organizers have started an online petition for the cause.

One of those organizers is Rainier Beach High School Senior Ifrah Abshir.

“The town hall is about getting student voices across about the need for equitable transportation to school,” she said. “I’ve been here for four years, at Rainier Beach, and each year I’ve had a struggle just to get an Orca card to get to school.”

Seattle Public Schools currently subsidize bus passes for any student who lives at least two miles away from the high school. Those two miles are measured as the crow flies, not by the actual distance students have to travel, weaving between blocks and streets en route to class.

Abshir lives just within that two mile radius. Her option is to walk, or come up with bus fare each day.

“I’m one of 10 kids, so I have nine siblings. My mom, in the morning, she usually can’t take me to school,” Abshir said, noting that her mom’s time is usually taken up driving her younger siblings to their schools.

“She doesn’t want them walking because it’s more of a safety risk for them,” she said. “So I take it upon myself to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning, and then find money for the bus, which is $3 a day. That adds up every single day.”

With the increase in youth bus fares, and concerns with safety within those two miles, the Transit Riders Union and students like Abshir are trumpeting the effort for free youth bus passes. Wilson cited examples of low-income students who have to escort younger siblings to school before heading to their own, and students with separated parents; one parent living inside the two-mile zone, and another outside.

“The big goal is that we would like to make sure that any public school student who needs to ride King County Metro to get to school is eligible for a free bus pass,” Wilson said.

We’ve been working closely with students, teachers and staff at Rainier Beach High School because this is a big issue for them.”

It’s a big issue for many reasons, such as inequity and safety. Wilson also noted that truancy has become a problem for some students with difficulty traveling to school. Abshir has experienced that problem first hand.

“A lot of students at Rainier Beach are like me…we all come from lower to middle class families who can’t provide Orca cards for us,” Abshir said. “These kids have to walk to school every single day; some through the worst parts of Rainier Beach. Some students have been attacked and have been assaulted…their attendance is really low.”

Safety is one factor organizers have cited in the need for free bus passes. It is the second time in a month that youth have raised concerns in Seattle’s Rainier Valley region.

“The Rainier Beach neighborhood, it is known as not being the safest neighborhood,” Abshir said. “Just walking through this neighborhood, you have chances of being cat called, or being pushed or attacked. There have been instances when students have come into school saying they’ve been attacked by this person, or saying an older man approached them, offering them drugs.”

“That’s one thing I fear, too, because I don’t want to go to a school where walking there I feel like I can be threatened, or I feel like I can be hurt,” she said.

Beyond the safety, Wilson said, there is an inequity issue for the Transit Riders Union.

“[Another] reason why we are focusing in on Rainier Beach High School now is that it really is an inequity issue for them,” she said. “They have 80 percent of their student body that qualifies for free and reduced lunch &#8212 you have a lot of low-income families. A school in a wealthier neighborhood has students with cars that they’re driving to school, or they have one parent that will drive them.”

“If we are trying to get people to ride public transit, what better way than to get them used to using the system as kids?” she asked.

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Rainier Beach community demands free bus passes for students