Unsafe practices spring up in Wichita’s school zones

08/31/2012 5:00 AM

08/31/2012 4:27 PM

A few minutes before College Hill Elementary School let out Thursday, Principal Kathleen Patterson told a visitor that just the day before, she saw two motorists ignore stop signs held out by the safety patrol.

Then, as Patterson monitored the traffic outside Thursday afternoon, it happened again. A dark-colored SUV with an out-of-state license plate drove past safety patrol signs extended into the street at First and Clifton. The intersection, a short walk from the school doors, sits on a one-way corridor for traffic from downtown Wichita. If a child had been watching only the safety patrol stop signs and thought it was safe to cross when the SUV failed to stop, there could have been a tragedy.

Tina McAnarney knows about potential close calls. As a car-pool driver for her children and others who go to College Hill, McAnarney gets to the school early and notices what some drivers do. “You see lots of people looking at their phones, texting,” looking down, reaching over for papers, fiddling with radios — not watching for children who could dart out in an instant, she said.

With schools back in session, McAnarney and school officials are asking motorists to be alert and use caution around campuses. To McAnarney, the risk is real.

Last March, her two children saw a 6-year-old College Hill Elementary student get struck by a car after school at First and Clifton, the same intersection where the SUV ignored safety patrol signs on Thursday. After the March accident, McAnarney’s son was “pretty shook-up” at first because he didn’t know how seriously the student was injured, she said. Everyone was relieved when they found out the boy was OK. Police said at the time that the 6-year-old ran into the street, and that a motorist who had the right of way slammed on her brakes but couldn’t avoid him.

McAnarney thinks everyone would be better off if motorists remembered this: Whether they have kids going to school or not, whether they are experienced drivers or not, “if you’re driving around schools, just be aware.” Slow down to 20 mph as traffic signs direct, whenever children are present, and especially from 8 to 9 in the morning and 3 to 4 in the afternoon.

Because of new school boundaries, there can be extra growing pains for motorists and parents dealing with new campuses and traffic flow changes, said Michele Zahner, a supervisor with the Wichita school district’s safety services department.

Morning drop-off at schools can get stressful because parents and commuters are in a hurry, “so they can get kind of careless and rushed,” Zahner said.

Parents still need to take time to pull over and drop children off at a safe point, she said.

Schools often have drop-off and pick-up points designed to keep children safe and keep traffic moving.

What school officials don’t want is children being let out in the middle of the street, where they could be hit by other traffic, or students crossing mid-block, where there aren’t stop signs and lights, crosswalks and safety patrols. Nor do school officials want a parent parking across the street and urging a child to cross, because there could be blind spots and approaching traffic a parent can’t see.

School officials urge parents to have their children exit or enter a vehicle only from the curb side, so they don’t get struck by passing cars.

At the start of this school year, at various campuses around Wichita, there have been reports of parents dropping off children in the middle of the street, blocking sidewalks, telling students to cross mid-block and cursing at or making an obscene gesture to school staff when they have been asked to park differently.

If a parent sees someone doing something unsafe, they shouldn’t confront the person but should alert school administrators or staff outside monitoring traffic, Zahner said. Schools work with community police officers to address safety concerns.

“There’s no reason to have that adult escalation happening around students,” Zahner said.

At Enders Elementary, a new neighborhood magnet school at 29th South and Osage, Principal Hannelore Burdette has a system to move little bodies safely and efficiently. Sixty kindergarteners get picked up every day. Parents’ cars line up along a curb, and staff members escort children to the cars. Parents use color-coded signs with their children’s names.

Burdette said that while she understands that some people might get frustrated about following the system, “we’re just doing our jobs, to keep the children safe.”

“By people doing what they’re supposed to do, they can actually get through a lot quicker,” she said.

McAnarney, the College Hill Elementary parent, said in previous years she would park across the street from the school.

But she decided it was too risky, and because she car-pools, she’s responsible for other children as well.

She leaves early to park along a curb by the school, so the children in her care are shielded from traffic.

It takes extra time, but it’s worth it, she said.

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