The Montgomery County school system is refusing to provide bus transportation for almost two dozen children who must walk from their Silver Spring apartment complex through a wooded area where several have been assaulted by older children and others accosted by a nude man.
While conceding that the route is "hazardous," school officials say the danger would be minimized if the children walked in groups to and from school. The recommendation has outraged some parents, who note that the only other walkable route to school is too dangerous for children because it follows a major traffic artery.
Until this year, when the school board decided that many children who had previously ridden to school on buses must now walk as part of an economy measure, students in the complex had been bused.
The irony here, according to parents, is that while it is the school's own transportation department that is urging the children to walk through the wooded area, officials at Argyle Jr. High School - where the children attend - have warned parents not to allow their children to use the wooded route to school.
Sam Berger, whose 13-year-old son is a student at Argyle, said that parents in the Peppertree Farm Apartment complex are particularly angered because children who live in an apartment complex closer to Argyle Junior High are currently receiving bus transportation.
Robert E. Elliott, county schools transportation field supervisor for the area, explained that students in the nearer complex - Strathmore House Apartments - are bused because the only way they can walk to school is along hazardous Bel Pre Road, the same major traffic artery that is the only alternative walking route for Peppertree children.
Currently, pupils must walk along a gravel path that passes through about 100 yards of dense underbrush and trees that form a thick wooded area bordering the apartment complex.
Elliott said that he discussed the situation with county police and believes as a result that the wooded route is "safe" if children walk together.
County police said yesterday that police reports show that on at least five occasions a nude man wearing only a purple ski mask or red hat has either jogged past or tried to lure students into the heavy underbrush alongside the path.
The police said that the man called out to the children while demonstrating sexual acts in the underbrush.
The field supervisor explained that the school system could not afford to hire a traffic guard to patrol the woods. Instead, he suggested that parents "sitting in their apartments having toast and coffee" should walk with their children through the woods.
Several parents as well as the principal at Argyle Junior High School do not believe a group of students walking to and from school will eliminate the possible danger that has apparently been lurking in the nearby wooded area.
"I can not agree with that alternative," said Lou Jones, the school principal.
"I have been suggesting that these parents get together and ask the county to build a sidewalk along Bel Pre Road," said Jones, who admitted that it could take years before such a projected was completed.
Meanwhile yesterday, as school officials and parents debated alternatives, a number of Peppertree Farm students were hitchhiking home and walking along hazardous Bel Pre Road as alternatives to walking through the woods.
According to 12-year-old Lisa Hampton, a Peppertree Farm Apartments, "I have to walk this way (along Bel Pre Road) because my parents said it wasn't safe for me to go through the woods."