Parents, teachers and administrators throughout the city, worried about pedestrian safety around schools, say city officials have ignored their repeated requests for stop signs, flashing lights, speed bumps and other traffic-control devices.
Representatives from Brent Elementary and St. Peter's in Southeast, Bruce-Monroe Elementary in Northwest, River Terrace Elementary in Northeast and the School Without Walls testified last week at a D.C. Council hearing on Bill 13-131, "School Proximity Traffic Calming Act of 1999." The legislation, introduced by council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) and approved by the financial control board in January, calls for city monitoring of accidents in school zones and an analysis of traffic-control equipment.
Witnesses complained to the council that their concerns, some more than a year old, have gone largely unheeded by the Department of Public Works. Common complaints included a lack of crossing guards, no "children at play" signs, poor law enforcement of the school zone speed limit and the need for rumble strips along dangerous stretches of road.
Art Lawson, acting director of Public Works, testified that the agency has conducted investigations of 228 school locations and sent surveys to administrators to determine what improvements are needed. He said the department would look into creating a safety manual for school traffic, replacing faded signs with new fluorescent ones, repainting crosswalks and purchasing graffiti-proof sign materials. He said some projects will begin immediately. But to those who raised the issue, this was a familiar, often empty refrain. Groups of concerned neighbors and school officials have been meeting for several months and said their requests have been mired in red tape. They said surveyors sent to school sites to observe traffic trends and offer recommendations were a poor substitute for speed bumps and warning signs.
"I don't know where the breakdown is," said Lynne Long, Brent Elementary principal. "All they have to do is come out here at 8:15 and 3:15. They can see where we need support."
Jane McNew lives across from Brent and near St. Peter's. She testified about traffic problems in the area and said she has made 15 to 20 phone calls to Public Works in the last four or five months requesting results from the study. She said the department first announced it would have the results by April 19, then by June 23. Last week, Public Works said the study would be released in September.
"What in God's name does it take to get a four-way stop sign?" she asked. "We are told to wait and wait and wait for the study. [Public Works employees] ran around the neighborhood and hung up a bunch of new, five-sided signs on lampposts and behind parked cars, but it just doesn't help."
Public Works spokeswoman Linda Grant said: "You know how important the issue is with someone, and you want to assure them it's the same importance to you. We also have an entire city, so what we're trying to do is make sure that the necessary steps are followed. We don't want to short-change anybody by doing things more quickly than we should. We do understand the frustration.
Some parents and educators fear the improvements will come too late. Donna Edwards, a sixth-grade teacher at Bruce-Monroe Elementary, said the traffic problems hit home as she was driving to work last month and saw one of her students lying on a median near the school.
"He was writhing in pain and holding his foot," she said. She called an ambulance from her cell phone after a woman approached her and said she had hit the student with her car. "Fortunately, he was fine, but it was a very harrowing experience." A few weeks earlier at Bruce-Monroe, which is bordered by Georgia and New Hampshire avenues, Harvard Street and Columbia Road, a first-grader was struck while leaving the school. She has a broken leg, Edwards said.
Robert Pittman, president of the School Without Walls Alumni Association, said he has received nearly two dozen complaints from students about traffic around the high school.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said she understands the concerns and hopes the hearing will inspire executive action. If not, she said, the council may spell out specific needs for each school.
"We might have to be more specific with directives," she said. "The safety of our children is of the utmost concern for this council."