School's reopening raises concerns about busy road

Plan made for safety of middle-schoolers

Brooklyn Park

July 09, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

When Brooklyn Park Middle School opens next month after a two-year renovation, the 46-year-old Hammonds Lane building will once again assume a place of prominence in the north Anne Arundel County community. The opening also will mean that more than 200 children will be crossing busy Ritchie Highway to reach the red-brick school.

To ensure the safety of those pupils, parents, elected officials and the new school's principal are working to get traffic safety measures implemented before the opening.

Principal Brenda L. Hurbanis said the safety of walkers is a priority of the school's Citizen Advisory Committee.

"That's the primary reason why the CAC formed in March," several months before school reopens, she said. "We knew it was an issue and didn't want to wait until the first day and say, `There's a problem.'"

In years past, children crossed Ritchie Highway on foot to get to the school - originally a junior and senior high, then a middle school - but now pupils as young as sixth-graders will make the trek.

"Since Ritchie Highway has not been an area where students have crossed for some time now, we want individuals to be alerted that shorter individuals will be crossing - and lots of them," Hurbanis said.

State Del. Joan Cadden, a District 31 Democrat and Brooklyn Park resident, began the effort to address the safety of walkers in December 1998 when she asked county traffic planners to install flashing speed limit signs at the school. A neighborhood resident had told her about the potential for problems.

"There's a gentleman who walks every morning in the area," she said, "and he was talking to me about how the cars speed up Hammonds Lane."

County traffic officials have agreed to install two flashing signs on Hammonds Lane to be activated at school arrival and dismissal times. They will warn that the speed limit is reduced from 30 mph to 25 mph. County police will place two crossing guards where Ritchie Highway intersects 11th Avenue and two where it intersects Hammonds Lane.

The State Highway Administration is studying a request from Hurbanis, the CAC, and county and state legislators to place similar signs on Ritchie Highway at the intersections where crossing guards will be stationed. The group wants double-fine signs to discourage speeding and fluorescent markings for the crosswalks. Because Ritchie Highway is a state road, the SHA must approve traffic safety measures.

The SHA rejected the group's initial request for the flashing signs because, under state law, the speed limit must be more than 35 mph to warrant the signs in a school zone. However, at a meeting last week with supporters of safety measures, SHA officials agreed to review traffic speed data at the Ritchie Highway intersections.

"From what I'm hearing, the volume of students now required to cross the roadway has increased dramatically," said Lawrence E. Elliott, an SHA assistant traffic engineer.

The CAC plans to ask county police to consider placing a camera at Hammonds Lane and Ritchie Highway to catch drivers who run red lights. County police started the red-light enforcement program last month.

Despite the efforts to ensure the young walkers' safety, some parents have concerns.

"The flashing lights and the crossing guards will help, but they're only at two intersections," said Emily Cossis, a Brook- lyn Park Middle CAC member who has been involved in the safety campaign. Her 12-year-old son will be a seventh-grader at the school.

Robert Lang, 11, who will be a sixth-grader at Brooklyn Park Middle, said he's worried about walking to school because of drug activity in the area.

"I think that [school] bus service would be better because you don't have to go through all the traffic and the drugs and activities," he said.

Robert's mother, Chris Lang, said her son will not be walking to school. "I'm going to have to drive him or carpool," she said.

According to school system transportation guidelines, middle and high school students must live more than 1.5 miles from their school to receive bus service. The limits for kindergarten and elementary pupils are one-half mile and 1 mile, respectively. About 20,000 of the county school system's 70,000 students are classified as walkers.

"Personally, I'd like to see bus transportation, but realistically we know that it's not going to work," said state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a District 31 Democrat from Brooklyn Park.

Jimeno's son attended the Hammonds Lane school when it was a junior high. "Quite frankly, like many parents, we drove him," he said.

Cadden said last year's designation of the Brooklyn Heights community east of Ritchie Highway as a HotSpot neighborhood increased police presence in the area. The state crime-prevention program awarded $123,000 to Brooklyn Heights to strengthen community policing and establish after-school programs.

Cadden said the HotSpot office at Ritchie Highway and 11th Avenue will be staffed by a county police officer at school arrival and dismissal times.

"If anything happens in the community, they've got their eye on everything," she said.

County police agreed last week to station Northern District officers at the walking routes the first few days of school to ensure that pupils cross at the intersections with crossing guards.

Hurbanis said the school will distribute brochures outlining safety tips for young walkers. A parent "block watch" program will look out for them. Sept. 6 has been designated "Walk Your Child to School Day."

Though the safety of walkers has been a matter of concern, it has not overshadowed the anticipation of the Brooklyn Park Middle School opening. The school is part of the expanded facility, which will also house a senior center, a community arts center and other programs.

Hurbanis said residents are "excited, enthused and thrilled that the school is coming back to the community in such a unique form."

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