Fearing for daughter's safety, mother campaigns for busing School officials rule path is safe WEST COLUMBIA

February 24, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

The walk to school for Kathy Lane's daughter is through a scenic woods, past several ball fields and behind an apartment complex -- less than a mile door to door.

While their Hobbits Grove neighborhood in West Columbia, with its neat lawns and handsome homes, seems as suburban and secure as they come, Ms. Lane fears for her daughter's safety as she hikes off to classes at Longfellow Elementary.

"I don't want to come off as paranoid, but how do we know a child won't be assaulted walking to school?" she asks.

She has taken up the challenge to get countywide bus transportation for her daughter and any other child whose parent requests the service.

Ms. Lane's goal is to have the county's current bus transportation policy revamped.

The policy she's targeted currently excludes students who live a mile or less from their school from riding the school bus. The policy affects about 6,000 of the school system's 33,000 students.

"It seems to me that it wouldn't be a matter of adding more buses, but of just adding bus stops," said Ms. Lane. "We have a school bus that comes right past our house every morning but won't stop because the kids on our street live a mile from the school."

County school officials believe that the routes Longfellow Elementary students use, including wooded paths maintained by the Columbia Association, are safe.

School officials turned down requests this month from Ms. Lane and other concerned parents for bus transportation for their children to the school because of findings by a committee that the routes are safe to walk.

But that hasn't persuaded Ms. Lane to end her efforts.

Later this week she plans to appeal their decision to the Maryland State Board of Education.

It would be the first time in memory that a county school board decision on bus transportation for walking students has been taken to the state for reconsideration, said Glen Johnson, director for pupil transportation for Howard County.

Ms. Lane began her efforts to get bus transportation for her daughter and other area children this winter after seeing media reports about violent carjackings and other crimes in the region.

In one of her many letters to school officials on the issue she noted, "Columbia is not Camelot. Crime is everywhere."

Next week she is scheduled to address the Howard Council of Parent-Teachers Associations to seek support on the issue.

Last week, the executive council of the Longfellow PTA endorsed Ms. Lane's position.

Mr. Johnson says most parents who request bus transportation for children who walk to school usually are concerned about traffic safety or the distance their child walks.

"We almost never have a parent say they're worried about potential crime, though in today's society I suppose it's in the back of any parent's mind," he said.

Mr. Johnson said he did not recall any reports of county students being assaulted on the way to or from school this academic year.

Most of Longfellow Elementary's students walk to school -- 233 out of a student body of 349, county school records show.

Under state guidelines, students who live one mile or less from their school do not qualify for bus rides.

Exceptions are granted when school officials, aided by the volunteer Student Walking Route Committee, determines that a walking route is unsafe or that the child has a special need.

The committee consists of parents, a traffic expert, and representatives from county police.

County school officials receive an average of 15 requests annually from parents seeking bus rides for children who walk, Mr. Johnson said.

After Ms. Lane inquired about requesting an exception to the busing policy, she found that school officials were already reviewing the issue as a result of another parent's request.

The walking route committee did issue several recommendations for enhancing the safety of the route.

They were:

* Requesting police patrols to control speeders on Cedar Lane, a major thoroughfare some of the walking students cross to get to school.

* Establishing a crossing guard at the intersection of Eliot's Oak Road and Hesperus Drive, which some students cross to get to school, because the committee found some motorists did not obey the four-way stop signs.

* Trimming back brush regularly along the path in the woods that parallels Cedar Lane.

* Thinning brush along another path through the woods that approaches Eliot's Oak Road.

The Board of Education, in its Feb. 5 decision on Ms. Lane's appeal, said a crossing guard was not warranted at Eliot's Oak and Hesperus Drive and that safety at Cedar Lane was adequate because signs warn motorists about pedestrian traffic.

"The routes really seem to meet an acceptable level of safety," said Mr. Johnson. "It's as good or better than most walking routes in the county.

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