Schoolgirl's death sparks community action Traffic safety group started WEST COLUMBIA

November 18, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Nancy Crosbie was among the residents of the Clarys Forest neighborhood in Columbia who was saddened and outraged when 12-year-old Malobika Bagchi was killed just a block from the child's home.

Malobika, whom friends called by her nickname "Sonu," was struck by a van Feb. 27 as she crossed Little Patuxent Parkway heading for her Gray Star Way home. She had just stepped off the bus she rode daily to and from Trinity School, the private school she attended.

Mrs. Crosbie and her neighbors have turned the sadness and anger at Sonu's loss into two projects with a positive focus.

Her first effort was to form a neighborhood committee to push for strengthening school bus safety laws and education statewide to prevent similar tragedies.

The committee of three may be small but already it's making progress.

The other project, completed over the summer and early fall, can be seen on Gray Star Way, a short street that wraps around a cul-de-sac and is graced with handsome modern Colonial-style homes.

It's an unassuming memorial to Sonu's life.

"It was rough on the entire neighborhood. Just about everyone has children who at one time or another have ridden on school buses. A lot of us just wanted to do something to show the family we thought Sonu was special," said Mrs. Crosbie.

She and other Gray Star Way residents spent their time, labor and money to transform a once weed-infested circle of land that forms the cul-de-sac, perhaps 15 feet in diameter, into a park, complete with a small bench, decorative trees, shrubs and flower beds created for a colorful spring bounty.

And then there's the small plaque that faces the Bagchi home. It reads, simply:

In memory of Sonu Bagchi

24 Oct. 1980 -- 27 Feb. 1992.

Your happy face and bright smile

Will always remain in our hearts

May your spirit bloom in heaven

Neighbors had initially considered planting a lone tree for Sonu. But Mrs. Crosbie and Pat Wang began suggesting the park project. It wasn't long before most neighbors were behind it and pitching in.

"It was a neighborhood tragedy so we all felt we wanted to be part of something that would show the Bagchis our support," said Wayne McCaughey.

Through a neighbor, Sonu's parents declined comment on the memorial.

To Mrs. Crosbie and other neighborhood residents, the tragedy seemed highly preventable, a realization that compelled her to join with two other neighbors to see what they could do about improving school bus safety laws and education.

One element of the accident that bothered many Gray Star Way residents was that the school bus carrying Sonu was allowed to drop children off at points where they might have to cross a four-lane road, Mrs. Crosbie said.

State law prohibits buses transporting children attending county schools from dropping students on a four-lane road if a child must cross the street to get to their home. Private school buses are not required to follow that prohibition.

But state law requires motorists approaching or following a school bus to come to a complete stop 20 feet from a bus picking up or discharging children unless the bus has pulled off the main road.

The driver of the van that struck Sonu failed to stop behind the bus, according to police.

Police said warning lights on the bus were flashing when the accident occurred. The driver of the van, Charles H. Smith, 21, of Baltimore was charged with failing to stop for a school bus, negligent driving and reckless driving.

So far, the committee of Clarys Forest residents, known as Citizens Reach Out for Student Safety, or CROSS, has assisted the county's Bus Safety Procedures Committee with a report on how bus safety laws could be improved.

The report forwarded to the school superintendent, county executive and the county's General Assembly delegation includes these recommendations:

* Revise state laws to require all school buses to pick up and drop off children on the side of a four-lane road closest to the child's home.

* Require drivers statewide to stop when a school bus has pulled off a main road to pick up or drop off students.

CROSS also launched a program at Swansfield Elementary School to educate students about how to safely wait for school buses and properly cross streets.

CROSS and the county Bus Safety Procedures Committee hope to interest the school board in broadening the program to other county schools.

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