When night falls on June 5 this summer, tens of thousands of parents will know exactly where their kids are. They will be hanging out at a nationally linked party called Safe Night USA.
So far some 1,000 communities and neighborhoods from Bloomfield, Iowa, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, have signed on to join the party. The Safe Night USA rules are simple: "No weapons, no drugs or alcohol, and no arguments."
"The point is plenty of cool fun," says Safe Night founder Olusegun "Olu" Sijuwade. "We are doing what kids want to do, and also carrying a message."
Safe Night is not new. Since 1994 dozens of communities have held these parties, which are planned by teens and adults. Always included are peer workshops or role-playing in conflict resolution, mediation, or violence prevention.
This year, Safe Night is going national. No one involved considers it a panacea. One party is not the solution to entrenched problems. But it is a community-endorsed introduction to the concept of safe fun.
"Parties are usually the atmosphere where kids come in contact with fights, guns, and alcohol," says Mr. Sijuwade, who is a youth worker in Milwaukee, Wis., "so we decided to change the mode of partying."
The tag line for the parties is: "Good Things Happen After Dark." At this writing, sponsors predict a million kids will participate.
PBS and Black Entertainment Television will also join the party under the Safe Night banner, and present a live, one-hour televised show from three locations: Los Angeles, Washington, and Milwaukee, the city that held the first Safe Night in 1994. In addition to entertainment, TV stars and celebrities like Doug E. Doug will use humor and skits to show the benefits of conflict resolution and mediation.
"As part of our party we are going to have a 96-by-96-inch TV screen in our park to see the party in other cities," says Nancy Plowman, a teacher from Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, Iowa, a town of 2,500. "The city swimming pool will be open too, and then we'll have a street dance in the parking lot."
Ms. Plowman expects around 150 teens. "Some of the kids and adults will do skits on violence and safety," she says. "Sometimes the kids say there is nothing to do here, but we want to show them we are a community that cares. We are not just snoopy adults, but we care about their safety and their fun."
As part of the night, organizers at each location arrange for rides home either on public transportation or on buses and vans driven by volunteers. Some communities will charge admission; others won't, and many will offer door prizes from local businesses. In Sacramento, Calif., the Safe Night group expects 3,000 kids at the local water park.
"Free food is really important," says Melissa Leuty, a sophomore at Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Neb. "Pizza and snacks; that's a big issue for kids," she says after helping plan 10 Safe Nights in Lincoln. "I think the shootings in Littleton, Colo., will probably be discussed here on the night of the party," she says. "Kids just want to be themselves and be safe doing it."
Safe Night started when Milwaukee was searching for ways to halt rising youth homicide rates in the inner city. The Milwaukee Health Department, with Mr. Sijuwade leading the way, joined with the Milwaukee Violence Prevention Coalition to sponsor the first Safe Night.
Since 1994, Milwaukee has held some 500 safe nights and is credited as being a key factor in the 60 percent drop in the homicide rate. "We did a survey of the kids," says Sijuwade, "and they said it was nice to go to a place where you don't have to watch your back. They ask, 'You going to have metal detectors?' They want them."
For Lindsey Smith, an AmeriCorps/Vista worker in Lincoln, the planning stages for a Safe Night also help teens open up. "Kids who usually don't give people the time of day will start conversations," she says after planning several different kinds of Safe Nights. "Safe Night is really effective because it's not difficult to do and the benefits go on and on."
A grant of $200 is available to community organizations from Safe Night national organizers in Milwaukee. Funding is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and 10 national partner organizations, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the National Latino Children's Institute.
*For information visit Safe Night USA on the Web: www.pbs.org/safenight or call 800-942-3723 or 608-263-2125.