In 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to his school bus stop in Lower Manhattan. His teacher noted his absence but didn’t report it to anyone. By the early 1980s, Etan became the first missing child pictured on a milk carton by the National Child Safety Council. When Etan disappeared, my kids were eight, five, and two. While I let the older two walk to school together, I was in the throes of stranger danger.
In 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to his school bus stop in Lower Manhattan.
My friends and I developed a “Safe Phone” system which called the homes of absent children whose parents had not reported to the school that their child would be absent. It’s hard to believe there was nothing in place to follow up on the teachers’ attendance sheets. Safe Phone was run by parent volunteers back then. We matched attendance records to reported absences and made calls as early as possible to confirm that the children were safe. If such a thing existed for Etan, there may have been a chance of saving him. It turned out that he was killed the same day he was abducted, but his parents suffered for many years hoping he would be found.
We also created a network of “Safe Houses” on the walking routes to school. These were identified by a yellow flyer with a hand print that people posted in their windows. Children were told they should go to one of these houses for help if they felt worried a stranger was following them or if they needed help.
Of course, eventually schools took responsibility for these things. But back then, my friends and I were really worried our children could be in danger of being abducted like Etan or the other children on those milk cartons we looked at every morning when our children poured milk on their Frosted Flakes.
My children find my fears quaint and a bit over the top, but I come by anxiety about harm coming to my family honestly. My father was a huge worrier. If we were five minutes late, he would panic that something bad had happened. It was only late in his life that he shared the trauma of his father going missing. When he didn’t come home from work at the expected time, my grandmother panicked. They had no phone. As the hours slipped by, her hysteria became considerable. She found a neighbor with a phone and either called the police or the closest hospital. He had been hit by a car and taken to the hospital. While he ultimately recovered, my father never got over the anxiety and fear he experienced.
Now that most older children have phones and there are apps for tracking family members, parents are less anxious about where their children are and if they are safe. Also, schools have become much more vigilant. By the time my grandchildren started elementary school, if they didn’t ride a school bus, their parents walked or drove them to school, and they were not allowed to go home unless they rode the bus or an adult signed them out.
To understand my fear about stranger danger, you had to understand the times. As a parent, my sense of safety had been shaken by all of those children on the milk cartons. Schools were pretty lax about accounting for the whereabouts of students, and communications happened over landlines only. If you weren’t home to answer the phone, you were out of luck. As late as 1985, only 7% of homes had answering machines. Pagers were a thing for doctors. I find the family app on my phone pretty reassuring. Although they would be loath to admit it, I think my children feel the same. They know their children arrived safely to school, but are they safe?
Last night, Northwestern University (where my daughter teaches and very close to our home) texted the following to students and faculty: “Police are responding to shots fired at Clark St. Beach just south of Evanston campus. Suspects fled north toward campus. Shelter in place until further notice.” The shooting resulted in one person dead and two 15-year-olds seriously wounded. The shooters escaped, and two hours later, the university lifted the shelter in place warning.
Some of the victims attend the same high school as my granddaughter. When she was barely back in school following the yearlong pandemic closing, the school went into lockdown because there were two guns discovered in a bathroom. Sadly, the students knew what to do because they had been through many active shooter drills. In fact, more of them were terrified of catching COVID as they crowded together with their classmates in corners and closets.
Ironically, the danger for my grandkids begins once they are in school. While none of them were born when the Columbine HS shooting took place, their parents were well aware of it. Here’s a partial list of the biggest school shootings since Columbine:
April 20, 1999 — Columbine High School, Littleton, CO (12 killed)
March 21 2005 — Red Lake HS, Red Lake, MN (7 killed)
October 2, 2006 — West Nickel Mines School, PN (5 killed)
April 16, 2007 — Virginia Tech, VA (32 killed)
February 14, 2008 — Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL (5 killed)
April 2, 2012 — Oikos University, Oakland, CA (7 killed)
December 14, 2012 — Sandy Hook, Newtown, CT (26 killed)
February 14, 2018 — Marjory Stoneman HS, Parkland, FL (17 killed)
May 18, 2018 — Santa Fe HS, TX (10 killed)
May 24, 2022 — Robb Elementary, Uvalde, TX (22 killed)
March 28, 2023 — Covenant School, Nashville, TN (6 killed)
For this generation of students and their parents, the danger is no longer being abducted on the way to or from school. It is within their classrooms, where they no longer are safe.
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.
thankyou for such a fine history of the protection for children. I greatly admired your fulsome narrative from the primitive times of communication to the use of phones and school’s policies.
I wish your ending would have shown that we have solved the problems.
I was kidnapped when in the 1940s when I was three. The newspaper published my picture and story about my return along with a picture of me on my tricycle. Ever after, my mother worried. So much so that she followed me in her car when I walked to elementary school.
I hope you have published your account to a large audience.
OMG, Richard, what a terrifying experience for you and your parents. As a parent, that would have been my worst nightmare come true, although I don’t think my parents ever worried about that possibility as I did with my kids. My mother used to brag that I was so compliant that she could have me ride my trike alone in front of the house. She knew I would follow the rule of going 10 squares in one direction and returning to home base. I don’t think she ever considered the possibility that a stranger would take me.
You provided a well-told narrative of your own experiences with thinking through dangers for children and the way they’ve moved from out in the streets to inside the schools. Today’s dangers are very real and the list you provided at the end of your story (even though it only scratches the surface) is sobering.
However, I do think it’s important to revisit the earlier period, and recognize that the panic with the milk cartons had a huge dimension of hyping the fear. My understanding–and some were already researching and revealing this at the time–is that the vast majority of children whose faces were displayed (in contrast to Etan P.) were runaways. The U.S. never came to terms with what was going on in so many families and communities that propelled kids to run away, Just as it has not come to grips with why so many young people (as well as adults), if given the means and the opportunity, have a desire to strike out in violence either against themselves (check the suicide numbers) or against others.
You make an excellent point about the milk cartons, Dale. I’m not sure why it was important back then to hype the fear of strangers. I know I barely scratched the surface of the gun issue. More people turn the gun on themselves than on kids in school, and some of the mass shootings are also suicide by cop. Still, guns in this country are insane.
The fears of children going missing are real, though as you point out, with all the tracking apps, it is easier now to follow their whereabouts. But the gun deaths are unbearable and unforgivable. The gun culture/worship in this country is out of control. I hope that SOMETHING causes gun owners out their self-righteous nonsense and we wake up and DO something to get the assault rifles out of the public’s hands.
I have the same wish, but watching the Tennessee Republicans expel the two Justins for joining an anti-gun demonstration after a school shooting in Nashville gives me little hope. I really thought something would happen after Sandy Hook, but so many years later, I’m pretty pessimistic.
What a sad and yet accurate description of dangers facing kids in the US. I remember walking to school without any safeguards and the biggest threat was—oh yes—nuclear war. It sounds as if your community did a good job of developing plans back in the day, without mobile phones or apps—which we remember so well. Although there are some more efforts to protect kids (active shooter drills?), there are also more threats (guns), and it is not paranoia to worry about the kids. Or ourselves.
Sadly, it makes sense to worry. I do remember drills when I had to hide under my desk at school to prepare for nuclear war. It made me somewhat fearful, but I also knew the chances were remote. I don’t know how worried my kids were about “stranger danger,” but I know active shooter drills and school shootings really frighten my grandkids. So awful.
Laurie, the Etan Patz tragedy is unforgettable, especially for us New York City parents,
When our son was young I learned that insurance carriers actually sold “kidnap insurance” to worried families, a sad comment on a harsh reality.
OMG, Dana — kidnap insurance. What would parents receive if their child was kidnapped? More help finding the child? Money?
Laurie, I believe you totally captured our fears for our children, then and now.
I appreciate how you and your friends initiated the ‘safe phone’ reach across your district. From milk cartoons to live-updates, it seems the fears for our children has increased beyond measure. All my life if you told me America would become one of the most unsafest places in the world to bring up children, I wouldn’t have believed it. So sad.
I totally agree. As the grandparent of a teen driver and two black boys, the two recent shootings of people “standing their ground” when kids rang the wrong doorbell or pulled into the wrong driveway breaks my heart.
There is way too much tragedy involving children in America, Laurie, and the work you and your friends did with safe phones and safe houses was — and still is — so needed. What a great contribution you’ve made in the fight to keep our children and grandchildren safe from stranger danger. This is a very well written story, and the list of documented shootings underscores the very real threats our kids face.
Sadly, I wrote it before an 84-year-old man decided to shoot a black teen who mistakenly rang the wrong doorbell, a carful of teen girls were shot at (one killed) for pulling into the wrong driveway, two cheerleaders were shot at because one of them mistakenly got into the wrong car (and even apologized to the driver), and a 6-year-old and her father were shot because their basketball landed on a neighbor’s property. At the very least, can’t guns be licensed like cars?
Gina and I both were bombarded with email from Northwestern PD during that whole shooting/lockdown thing. I was struck by how blase we have become at the idea of sudden gun violence being unleashed upon strangers. FOX, OAN, the GOP etc ad nauseum have done their job well.
Agreed. We are now living in a toxic brew of anger and guns.