Parents wary after abduction attempts

By Elle Irvine

Tauranga parents are divided on whether to let their children walk to and from school after a spate of abduction attempts in the area.

A 12 year-old girl was last approached on Tay St in Mount Maunganui - the fourth alleged attempted abduction in the past six months. One arrest has been made.

There is no legal age at which a child can walk to or from school alone, despite the fact children cannot be left home alone under the age of 14.

Greerton Village School principal Anne Mackintosh said few of the school's children now walked to and from school on their own.

"There's been the odd attempted abduction, which gets parents jittery.

"It is the reality. When we were kids we used to roam for miles. Now it's different. It is sad," she told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

Mrs Mackintosh said junior schoolchildren should not be walking alone.

The school has a walking school bus, which takes children 500 metres from the school, and they are either picked up by parents or walk the rest of the way alone.

Police visit the school and others regularly to deliver a programme called Keeping Ourselves Safe, which aims to provide children with the skills to cope with situations that might involve abuse.

Greenpark School principal Graeme Lind said there had been no reported incidents in the school's area this year, and it was a parent's responsibility to decide whether their child walked to school alone.

"But if parents do ask us, we say particularly for our younger children [8 and younger], they should be escorted to school."

Mum trying to strike a fine balance

Tauranga mum Donna Tuck allows her 9-year-old daughter to scooter to school on her own but admits the idea scares her.

Mrs Tuck's daughter, Alyssa, wanted to make her own way to Greenpark School instead of being dropped off, and last term she was allowed to do so for the first time.

Mrs Tuck's reservations weren't about road safety - she knows her daughter knows the rules - but about stranger danger. "I said she could ride her scooter, as I figured being on a scooter might make it a little bit harder [for a predator] to get her away.

"I talked to her again the night before and the morning before, about what to do if anyone was to approach her.

"But I didn't want to put the fear in her either. It's a catch 22 - you want to make sure they know what to do, but you don't want to freak them out."

The mother of three realised her daughter was nervous when Alyssa told her she got scared when a car slowed down behind her. It turned out the car had slowed for a speed bump.

As a mother, she is worried about her daughter, but she feels it's the right thing to do.

The route to school is a busy area with lots of children around.

"If you let her walk to school and something happened you'd feel guilty, but at the same time, having that responsibility and that freedom to go to and from school is also very important.

"It's about finding a balance. I think it's really important that kids are able to have those responsibilities and grow as we did."

A desire to bring up "strong, sensible children

Papamoa mum Samantha Lloyd lets her 6-year-old son Noah scooter the 600m to Golden Sands School in a group.

"Going with an older kid and a friend seemed a safer option; they are less likely to be approached by someone. If someone has an accident, there's always someone to run back home and get a mum."

The mother-of-three's decision was based on a desire to bring up "strong, sensible children - not kids afraid of the bad things".

"We can't wrap them up in cotton wool.

"I can either give him things to be afraid of, or the strength to go out and enjoy the good stuff, whether it's jumping off a sand dune or learning to cross the road by himself."

Miss Lloyd and her partner had "a big talk" with Noah about what to do if he was approached by someone. He knows that if his parents had sent someone else to pick him up, he would have got a note from the office at school.

"Because it's a small school everyone knows each other, and I would like to think if someone saw a car slow down by a group of kids they would notice."

Tauranga mum Maxine Paterson takes the opposite view. As the walking school bus co-ordinator at Gate Pa School, she doesn't like to see children on their way to school without an adult.

"I don't trust people, I don't trust strangers. Kids are vulnerable. Often they are quite helpless, because they are young and they can't fight back.

"I don't even like them going past the letter box. It's [about] safety for me."

The mother of Jorja, 9, and Corbin, 6, said abduction attempts in the Bay made her more wary.

"The one time you let your child go, something might happen. You can't risk it.

"Things are so different now. I'm 39, and [when I was a child] we used to go and roam the streets. It was safe then, it's not now. There's just so many weirdos around."

Miss Paterson said the walking school bus was a compromise so children could still walk to school but in safety.

Tauranga police Sergeant Nga Utanga recommended parents travel the route to school with their child on a regular basis and discuss any places that need special care, such as road works.

Children should stick to the route and not take short cuts.

Ann Weaver, director of Safekids New Zealand, said parents should assess the skill level of each child and the route to school, as the developmental level of children varied greatly, as did the safety of the area. Safekids advises that children under 10 should not cycle on the road unless they are accompanied by a competent adult cyclist.

Safety tips for children walking to school

  • Have a code word so if someone tells your kids that you sent them to pick them up, they will know they need to hear the code word if it's true.

  • If you know people on the school route, introduce them to your child and ask if their house can be an emergency safe house.

  • Time the walk home from school, allowing for a few distractions, so that you know when to start worrying if your child isn't home.

  • Tell your child to kick, scream and yell "NO, STRANGER" as loud as they can if someone tries to persuade or physically force them into a car.

  • If appropriate, give your child a pre-pay phone for emergencies only, with emergency contacts programmed in.

  • Be consistent in phoning your school if your child is going to be absent - that way any unexplained absence will immediately sound the alarm. While most schools phone to check absences during the day, if you consistently forget or are late phoning in, they may just assume your child is sick and make you the last call on the list.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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