Suitland Parents Want All Children Bused

Lashawn Wallace walks her daughter Jada, 4, home from the newly opened Suitland Elementary School.
Lashawn Wallace walks her daughter Jada, 4, home from the newly opened Suitland Elementary School. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 26, 2005

Parents alarmed about their children's safety at Suitland Elementary School are petitioning the Prince George's County school board to bus all 600 pupils to school, no matter how close they live to the building.

The brand-new school, which opened Monday, is on Homer Avenue in Suitland, adjacent to a stretch that police call the deadliest three square blocks in the county. Six homicides have occurred in those three blocks this year.

In March, a 17-year-old boy was killed in a home next to school grounds. The neighborhood surrounding the three square blocks can be dangerous as well: On Friday, a 24-year-old man was fatally shot on Suitland Road, several blocks from the school.

D. Layne, who said she did not want her first name published because she fears retribution in the neighborhood, lives two blocks from the school but drives her children there. She said she is bothered that she has to go to that part of the neighborhood.

"The neighborhood is split," she said. "Half is $200,000 to $300,000 homes, and the other half is drug-infested apartments."

She said she would prefer that her 8-year-old son walk, for example, two blocks away from the school to ride the bus four blocks to the school. She said she doesn't want her children walking along Hudson, Huron or Homer avenues, the dangerous streets that surround the school.

"I'm 30 years old, and I don't drive down Huron Avenue," Layne said.

The 4700 blocks of Homer, Hudson and Huron avenues are a thriving drug market, police say, an area with so much crime and blight that Prince George's plans to tear down all the apartment buildings there.

The county's revitalization plan for the area, called the Suitland Manor redevelopment, includes buying and demolishing all the run-down apartments in a 33-acre area that includes Homer, Hudson and Huron avenues. Eventually -- possibly by 2008 -- condominiums, apartments and retail will replace the blight.

Officials said they hope to have purchased all the homes in six months to a year. Then they will begin tearing them down.

Chrystal Roseboro-Nash, 32, whose 10-year-old daughter is a Suitland student, said she can't believe that the county would have children walking through such a dangerous area. She said the county should provide busing for everyone.

"Who puts an elementary school in the middle of a drug-infested area?" Roseboro-Nash said. "I hope they do revitalize the area, I really do. But . . . before they do, there should not be one walker. It's going to take a child getting hurt or killed before they decide to bus everyone."

County Board of Education Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) refers to the area as "the three H's." She said the plan was to open the school after the neighborhood had turned the corner, not before. "Sometimes the plans don't always work out the way you want," she said.

Roseboro-Nash and dozens of other parents were at the school Wednesday afternoon to pick up their children and walk or drive them home at dismissal time. Some adults walked away with six or eight students, saying they are concerned about the violence and about small children walking along busy streets with few sidewalks.

Children as young as 4 years old attend Suitland Elementary, which cost $15.7 million to build and has students in pre-kindergarten through grade six. Most of the children had an adult escort on a recent afternoon, but some walked away in pairs and could be seen meandering between abandoned apartments.

Stephanie Dobson, 40, who started the petition to bus the children, said her 11-year-old daughter walks to school from Pennsylvania Avenue, an area she said is unsafe because of poor sidewalks.

She has 87 signatures and had planned to present the petition to the school board this week.

For at least a month, school administrators have been considering whether to bus all the children, which would override the county's policy to bus only children who live 1 1/2 miles or farther from the school.

Tignor said this week that she has been satisfied with the extra police presence and crossing guards placed at the school in response to concerns about the children's safety. But the board has not made its final decision on busing.

"Transportation is costly," Tignor said. "But we might have to reconsider. There's a possibility we might have to bite the bullet and just do it."

Tignor said she wants parents to exercise the same common-sense caution they did before the school opened.

Barbara Hamm, a Prince George's police spokeswoman, said that police are at the school in the morning and afternoon and that the department's special operations team is working in the neighborhood. "We are working to create an overall atmosphere of safety for everybody," Hamm said.

Felicia Littleton, 39, who lives a block from the school, in the dangerous three-block area, and has a 4- and a 9-year-old at the school, said she does not allow her children to play outside.

"I wouldn't let my babies walk to school alone, not for nothing," Littleton said. "I don't need them walking over a dead body or getting hit by a person running from police."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company