Parents riled over traffic hazards near Harmony school

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Neil Johnson
Thursday, October 31, 2013

JANESVILLE—As a group of 15 elementary school students turned right on the sidewalk at the corner of Deer Crossing Drive and busy Rotamer Road, a car backed up at the curb and parked illegally—right over a crosswalk.

It was 3:30 p.m. and school had just let out at Harmony Elementary School on the northeast side. Dozens of students were walking to their parents' cars, which were parked bumper-to-bumper on both sides of residential Deer Crossing Road.

The illegally parked car moved only after its driver saw a Gazette reporter who was writing in a notebook.

Parents of students at Harmony school and even some residents say they're fed up with traffic hazards on a few side streets where dozens of parents now park to pick up and drop off their students.

Principal Jeanne Smith said Harmony, a kindergarten through third-grade elementary school in the Milton School District, set a new policy earlier this year: Parents are no longer allowed to pull into the school's parking areas off Rotamer Road to drop off or pick up students.

The school lot is blocked with ropes on poles sunk into buckets of concrete, and parents are forced to wait in cars on side streets or walk to the school to get their children.

Smith said the change is meant to clear up a fire lane at the school, ease liability and erase traffic congestion and safety hazards in the school parking lot, where more than 200 students are let out at the end of the day as school buses come and go.

Parents and neighbors say Harmony school's new policy has spread parking congestion and safety problems to adjacent neighborhood streets along Deer Crossing Drive and a stretch of North Galaxy Drive south of Rotamer Road.

Young students now pour out of school and head to the side streets, which are packed with parents' cars on both sides.

“It's an accident just looking for a place to happen right now,” said John Byrne.

Byrne was waiting in his truck along North Galaxy Drive to pick up his young grandson Tuesday afternoon.

“You've got cars here bumper to bumper, turning around in driveways. There's a sidewalk only on one side, and kids are everywhere. You can't see all of them. Just wait until the snow and ice starts,” Byrne said.

On Deer Crossing Road and the southern extension of North Galaxy Drive, people park wherever they want--over crosswalks and blocking driveways, mailboxes and fire hydrants on both sides of the street.

Rod Wilberg, who lives on the corner of North Galaxy Drive, had the city put up a no parking sign in front of his house. He said he relies on important medicine that comes in the mail, and the mail carrier couldn't reach his mailbox with parents cars parked in front of it.

Parent Kimberly Jones-Short said she's begged the school, the Milton School District administration and the city of Janesville to find ways to make the side streets safer.

Jones-Short said she's seen people do U-turns in front of students and recently saw a parent drive an SUV over the curb and sidewalk on the north side of Rotamer Road, and then drive down through a grassy incline at the school to get around the parking lot ropes.

A crossing guard is stationed at crosswalks at Rotamer Road at the intersections of North Galaxy Drive and Wright Road, but Jones-Short said there are no school staff supervising the dozens of students who walk along the sidewalk on the north side of Rotamer Road and hook onto Deer Crossing or North Galaxy drives.   

“I look at these cars fly through, and not one staff member is supervising. It blows my mind,” Jones-Short said.

The city won't provide a crossing guard at the crosswalk because it does not meet engineering criteria for student density; it has fewer than 60 students cross there, according to a city survey, Janesville Police Community Service Sgt. Brian Donohoue said.

Along with a request for a crossing guard at Deer Crossing Drive, Jones-Short said parents are pushing for staff supervisors at the school and along the sidewalks. And they want parking blocked off on one side of Deer Crossing Drive and for police to ticket people who park over crosswalks.

“That would make it easier for people to see students who might dart between cars,” Jones Short said.

Donohoue said the police department gets calls from many schools in Janesville over traffic problems at drop-off and pick-up times. He said special officers have issued traffic citations for unsafe driving around Harmony school.

He said there is sufficient police staffing to handle traffic at Harmony, but officers can't always be at the school during pick-ups and drop-offs.

“We prioritize calls,” he said. “An injury accident, a burglary--we have to prioritize.”

As of this week, the school had not addressed parents' concerns in any visible way, Jones-Short said.

Smith admits the new policy to block off the school parking lot is not ideal. She's seen people drive through the school lawn to skirt the parking lot ropes.

Yet she defends the new policy, saying it was the only way to get rid of parents' cars stacked three rows deep and blocking the fire lane in front of the school. “It's frowned on by the fire department and (the) insurance (company,)” she said.

Smith said many parents who would come in the school lot before the new policy were too busy chatting on their cellphones to watch for students. Two years ago, a student had a foot run over in the school lot, she said.

Other schools in the district, including West and East elementary schools in Milton, block their parking lots to parents before and after school, Smith said. 

Smith said she hasn't had staff regularly scheduled to supervise pick-ups and drop-offs, because staff is busy with other student-related duties. But she has had a few staff occasionally outside at pick-ups and drop-offs.

Smith admits there is no ideal way to smooth parking issues around Harmony school, which was built in an area not originally as busy as it now is.

She believes she's under unfair pressure, and that people are ignoring the fact that drivers around schools—parents included—need to be more careful and patient.

“This has been very frustrating for me professionally. I'd love to wave a magic wand,” she said.

Smith said she's now working on scheduling staff supervisors at drop-off and pick-up and starting creation of a Walking School Bus. That's a national program that relies on parent volunteers to walk groups of young students along busy streets so they can make it safely home or to their parent's cars.

“It's just that it's hard to find anyone who wants to take the time to do that, to volunteer,” Smith said.

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