Fairfax County schools place new playground apparatus off limits to kids

(Michael S. Williamson/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Seeking fun and challenging playground equipment for the children, the PTA of Stratford Landing E.S. raised $35,000 to have a new play structure installed at the school. After a Fairfax County public school safety inspector reviewed it the structure was deemed unsafe and officials want it removed.

(Michael S. Williamson/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Seeking fun and challenging playground equipment for the children, the PTA of Stratford Landing E.S. raised $35,000 to have a new play structure installed at the school. After a Fairfax County public school safety inspector reviewed it the structure was deemed unsafe and officials want it removed.

The playground structure is brand new and a child’s dream: soaring metal beams and a tantalizing spider web of climbing net. It sits outside Stratford Landing Elementary School, but all the students can do is stare at it from afar.

Behind the yellow caution tape fettering the apparatus are what parents describe as reams of bureaucratic red tape threatening the equipment, which was built with $35,000 from countless PTA silent auctions and bake sales.

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Although parents worked with the Fairfax County Public Schools facilities department, purchased the equipment, hired a contractor and had the playground ready for recess, the school system suddenly deemed the play equipment too dangerous. Since Nov. 30 it has been off-limits, parents say.

Never mind that the same equipment is installed at more than 1,200 parks and schools across the country, including a public park in the county.

“We have $35,000 wrapped up in caution tape,” said Eleanor Whitaker, mother of second- and sixth-graders at Stratford Landing, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, near Mount Vernon.

What began as an effort to make recess more enjoyable for kids quickly evolved into a feud between parents and school officials.

Parents say the kids just want to have fun. Officials say the school system wants to avoid potential lawsuits should a child be injured on the equipment. According to statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 200,000 children visit emergency rooms annually after playground accidents.

The facilities department says the new equipment must go. But to make amends, Fairfax is offering to revamp the Stratford Landing playground, using about $135,000 from the county’s coffers.

“Funding a new playground is costing taxpayer money,” Whitaker said. “It would be a tremendous waste of money to pull the equipment out.”

Stratford Landing’s principal did not return calls seeking comment. County school officials said the equipment doesn’t meet strict requirements.

“Unfortunately, the playground equipment purchased by the PTA does not meet FCPS safety standards,” school system spokesman John Torre said. “We are currently working with school officials to consider options to upgrade and renovate the entire school playground.”

The project started last year before summer break. The PTA — having raised funds to expand the playground for a school that had grown to 870 students — asked for guidance from Fairfax’s facilities department. The PTA says the county provided the parents with literature about school playground construction procedures and catalogues from approved vendors.

With input from students, the PTA bought a climbing obstacle developed by Landscape Structures, a Minnesota-based playground equipment manufacturer. The group chose the popular Evos system, with arching spans of tubes that more closely resemble a modernist sculpture than the wooden platform playground equipment of yore.

The PTA then hired Isaac Sparks, a construction manager for Sparks @ Play, a playgrounds specialist based in Owings Mills, Md., to install the structure. By early November, the students were romping all over it.

Soon, however, a county playground inspector was on the scene, declaring the structure a hazard.

In a written report, the inspector found that among other safety issues, parts of the structure were too tall. One part of the equipment is 94 inches above the ground, 10 inches higher than the school system allows. The report said that deviating from the school system’s playground protocols “places users at an increased life-safety risk” and that the Evos system could lead to head injuries and neck entrapment. “The equipment should be removed from the property,” according to the report.

Fred Caslavka, Landscape Structures’ chief financial officer, said the Evos system is safe, fun and popular with children.

“It is one of our more popular designs,” Caslavka said. “I’m actually quite surprised that Fairfax County says it’s not safe. I’m totally confident it complies with all the standards out there.”

According to company data, there are 1,255 Evos play structures across the country. One is in Fairfax, at Arrowbrook Centre Park.

Sparks, who helped oversee the Evos installation at Arrowbrook, said two are installed in Arlington County, at the Charles Drew Community Center and Mace Park. Officials with the Arlington school system said there is another at Oakridge Elementary. Sparks called the Evos system the standard playground equipment for D.C. public schools.

In an e-mail to PTA members, David Bennett, a Fairfax schools facilities management employee, explained the rationale for removing the equipment.

“As for allowing the equipment at Stratford Landing, it would be setting a new standard,” Bennett wrote. “How could we deny another school or PTA the same playground equipment if we allowed it at [Stratford Landing]?”

Before his retirement Dec. 31, Dean Tistadt, the Fairfax schools’ chief operating officer and assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation, met with members of the Stratford Landing PTA to talk about options. He explained that miscommunication between his offices and the PTA might have led to confusion. The facilities department offered to make sure that the PTA did not lose the money it had invested.

“Inadvertently, there may have been insufficient guidance from us,” Tistadt said. “Maybe it was our fault, at least in part. So we are going to be the ones who hold financial responsibility, not the PTA.”

Tistadt said that historically, the school system is “pretty risk averse,” especially when student safety is concerned.

“This is a litigious society,” Tistadt said. “If someone gets hurt using this equipment, the PTAs aren’t getting sued, we are. They seem to be emotionally invested into this apparatus, and they think we are being overly bureaucratic and overly intractable and overly cautious, but they aren’t the ones who would be in court, and they don’t have the same safety expertise as we do.”

School Board member Daniel G. Storck, whose Mount Vernon district includes Stratford Landing, said the debacle may have been the result of a policy issue. Storck said he has been unable to determine whether the school system has written regulations regarding playground construction. Storck said that as deliberations continue, he is keeping an open mind and thinks the new equipment could stay.

“It seems to me so far that what we permit seems restrictive, and I don’t understand why we have some of the restrictions that we have,” Storck said.

At Stratford Landing, the children just want to play on the apparatus.

Whitaker’s daughter, Kes Shallbetter, an 8-year-old second-grader, said her favorite part of the Evos structure is the climbing net. She said that one day during recess, the equipment was suddenly off-limits.

“I was upset, because it was fun,” Kes said. “It was exciting to have a new piece at the playground because the old pieces I got so bored at.”

 
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