By DAVID BORAKS
Concerns about unsupervised children roaming downtown streets and shops have brought an end to the longtime Davidson tradition of Fridays on the Green. Davidson Elementary School officials told parents last week they no longer may give their fifth-grade-aged children permission to walk downtown on Friday afternoons. But some local business owners see no major problems and are lamenting the change, saying it will hurt their businesses.
The school’s interim principal said the ban was prompted by complaints from parents and businesses and concerns about safety and unruly behavior. She also told DavidsonNews.net the students are too young to be out without an adult.
For many years, fifth-grade students who had written permission from their parents have been released from the South Street school on Friday afternoons to walk to Main Street. There, dozens of students have socialized, played touch football on the Green and visited local shops, from the CVS pharmacy to The Soda Shop to Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
But in a note to parents last week, Davidson Elementary interim principal Ann Nivens announced the policy change. Now, students will no longer be allowed to walk to the Green, even if their parents are willing. Instead, they must be picked up by a parent or ride home on the bus, as any other day. [Ms. Nivens will be interim principal until next week, when Dana Jarrett takes over.]
The letter cited “communication from parents, students, town citizens and businesses expressing concerns regarding the supervision of students on the Green on Friday afternoons.”
Last Friday, the Green and Main Street were eerily quiet, with only a handful of students visible. One group of four fifth-grade girls said their parents had picked them up at school and dropped them off downtown. But playmates were few.
They said they saw about seven or eight people total, compared to “a hundred” on previous weeks. Asked why downtown was so empty, one of the girls said, “Because they banned it, because people were being bad” – wrestling, using foul language, and not paying at local shops.
The new policy comes less than a year after Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools closed Davidson IB Middle School on South Street, which used to release dozens of middle-schoolers to the Village Green every Friday afternoon. Although Lake Norman Christian School began leasing the building Jan. 1, it has fewer students – only 110 divided between grades K through 9.
Some merchants say they’re concerned that the elementary school policy change will permanently end a tradition has made for lively Friday afternoons and evenings along Main Street and brought business downtown. Some parents have even followed their children downtown on Fridays, meeting to shop and dine at local eateries.
Deborah Caudle, owner of The Soda Shop, estimated that the loss of Friday afternoon business from students would cost her about $50,000 a year. She’s already struggling, she said, and that money could mean the difference between having an assistant manager or not.
“It’s sad. It’s really sad,” Ms. Caudle said. “It’s gonna be about 50,000 a year for me. You can take five-oh-oh-oh-oh and just cross it off.”
But the Fridays on the Green tradition has not come without problems. Ms. Nivens said the school has received complaints from the CVS pharmacy and other businesses about shoplifting and misbehavior. [A CVS assistant manager told DavidsonNews.net this week the store was not among those who complained.] She said one parent adviser on her Senior Leadership Team expressed concern, saying her car had once nearly struck a child crossing the street on a Friday afternoon. She also said the school’s fifth grade teachers supported the change.
“I think the main concern is that people perceive this as a school event, because the children do gather at the school and leave from the school,” Ms. Nivens said.
She said the move was not prompted by Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ lawyers. “Even though we haven’t had lawyers involved, I do feel if I child was to get hurt, the school would have a certain amount of responsibility,” Ms. Nivens said.
CHILDREN IN DANGER?
The school does not provide any supervision once the children leave school, though some parents have made a practice of hanging out on the Green or the coffee shop to keep an eye on things.
Ms. Nivens said she thinks fifth graders are too young to be allowed outside home or school without an adult. “Even though it is not a school-sponsored activity, the school still is perceived as encouraging children to be unaccompanied … and to be unsupervised,” she said.
She also worries – though she admits it is “far out there” – that unsupervised children could get into other trouble when they’re alone, such as arranging meetings with strangers they may have met on the Internet. “The world is just a different place nowadays. I just imagine that a child could be on the Internet or Facebook with someone and arrange to meet them there. That would just be a concern that I would have as a parent.”
She said no parent has mentioned that to her. But she said she is simply concerned with children who are not under the supervision of a parent or adult. [Fifth graders - 10 and 11 years old - are too young to sign up for Facebook accounts, which require youth to be at least 13.]
Mayor John Woods said he has heard complaints about Fridays on the Green in recent years. Asked to comment about the new school policy, he offered a middle of the road answer: “We’d like to see parents play a role in what has been a great community tradition.”
LOST BUSINESS, LOST TRADITION
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream on South Main Street has long been a major part of the Friday fun for kids, and has even staged events and offered free video games. Karen Toney, the shop’s manager, was among those saddened by the change last week – and not just because of the loss of business.
“I have always loved what ‘Fifth-Grade Friday’ looks like,” she said. She said she has seen both students and their parents on Main Street. “It just makes the town feel alive.”
Ms. Toney said she understands there have been problems at other Main Street businesses – shoplifting at CVS and a crush of students filling other businesses, such as The Soda Shop. She said most business owners have developed a rapport with the kids that allows them to keep the problem in check. “I know the kids will listen to me.”
Megan Blackwell, owner of the Village Store on South Main Street, agreed. She said she was not among those who complained. “I have not heard any merchants on Main Street complain about it,” she said.
Ms. Blackwell said the local shopkeepers have been able to handle the situation by talking to students. “Are we willing to take the ‘It takes a village’ approach? Yes. We are willing to say, ‘Look, you all are out of control. Take the Pepsi and go outside.”
Ms. Toney said the loss of Friday afternoon business would hurt and probably means no longer hiring an extra part-time employee those days. “This will absolutely affect my bottom line. These kids and their parents have supported the business.”
The CVS pharmacy at South Main and Chairman Blake Drive has been a popular destination, but also has seen rowdy kids and occasional shoplifting. A couple of years ago, the store began limiting students to 10 at a time in the store.
A CVS assistant manager, who asked that his name not be used, told DavidsonNews.net the store had never complained to the school. To accommodate the extra traffic and sales on Fridays, CVS has added an extra person on Friday afternoons, he said.
One pair of Davidson Elementary School students did a Math Fair project about Fridays on the Green last month. They found that the CVS was the most popular place for fifth graders to spend money on Friday afternoons.
“We do get a little bit more business because of this,” the assistant store manager said. But, he added, “It does create a headache.”
Two years ago, when middle-school students still were coming to the Green on Fridays, some kids started a fire in the bathroom, he said. “We’ve also had kids climbing on the roof,” he said.
Still, the end of Fridays on the Green will hit CVS in the cash registers. “We’ll see a drop in sales,” he said.
Feb. 16, 2012, Davidson Elementary School letter to parents about the new policy. (PDF)