Beware, dangerous crossing ahead

Rushe Middle School parents are looking for help in improving safety for kids who walk or bike to school.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 10, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - Every day, sixth-grader Nazaria Swortzel rides her bicycle from her Oakstead home to Rushe Middle School on Mentmore Boulevard.

Every day, her dad, Tony Swortzel, cringes.

He watches drivers speed by, talking on their cell phones, ignoring the flashing lights and school zone signs. He sees parents streaming in and out of the school parking lot. And he worries about the 100 or so kids who try to cross Mentmore, with its four lanes of traffic and two turning lanes, without anything like a stop sign or anyone (like a crossing guard) to help.

"I just sat there and thought, 'This is insane,'" Swortzel said. "I can't believe the situation is the way it is."

School officials say they are looking for ways to improve things. They're making requests to the people who control traffic and enforcement. They really want a full-time crossing guard assigned there until Sunlake Boulevard is completed and a traffic signal goes up at Mentmore.

But there's a potentially huge hurdle in the way: "We don't provide crossing guards for anything other than an elementary school," said Sgt. James Law, supervisor for middle school resource officers and crossing guards.

The Sheriff's Office has worked with the school district safety committee to improve the situation at Rushe since it opened, Law said.

Back then, the crosswalk wasn't there. The flashing warning lights weren't, either. Nor were the now frequent, but not daily, appearances by the volunteer Citizens Service Unit and the sheriff's deputies with those radars that tell you your speed.

Deputies also give kids lessons on how to walk and bike safely, and they've talked with the district about adding fencing to keep kids from darting out into the road.

Complaints have declined and the situation is safer than it was.

"Right now, we feel like there's always a chance that someone will go fast, but we feel like we have traffic controlled over there," Pasco assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said.

Still, neither the parents nor the district are completely satisfied.

"We have asked specifically for a survey of that intersection," to see how much traffic passes through at arrival and dismissal times, said John Boucher, the district's safety manager.

Perhaps the results will show that the intersection could use a crossing guard to protect the children as they walk and ride to and from campus, he said. That could be a temporary fix, until the traffic signal goes in, he added.

Rushe Middle leaders also like that idea.

"The School Advisory Council has brought it up, and it's going to be brought up again," principal Dave Estrabrook said.

SAC chairwoman Amye Cox is leading that charge. Independent of the council, she has sent letters to the county administrator asking for a crossing guard and extra signs letting people know the school zone is there and warning them to slow down.

She noted that with the current signs, "you are on (them) before you realize it." What's more, Cox added, the school zone ends before the main bus driveway. The setup has got to be better, she said, remarking that a study is fine, but if someone is injured in the meantime, "what is our solace?"

That's Pollie Begrandchamp's concern.

Begrandchamp's daughter, seventh-grader Abigail, rides her bike to school from her home just one road away in the Concord Station subdivision.

Yet because of construction and a lack of sidewalks, Abigail must cross Mentmore twice to get to and from school.

"She keeps saying she is afraid to cross," Begrandchamp said. "She says nobody stops, nobody slows down. They just keep going....The biggest issue is, the traffic doesn't ever let up to let the children cross."

Begrandchamp has seen kids running to get across, even with the crosswalk, Citizens Service Unit assistance, flashing lights and the like. She rejects the notion that middle school kids are mature enough to traverse the roadway without more help. She and others worry that if the Citizens Service Unit volunteers stop coming, the kids might become even more careless.

"They're not old enough to cross with so much traffic," she said.

Cox acknowledged that it would cost money to hire a crossing guard, even a temporary one. And she accepted that parents without training can't just volunteer to do the job. But she called the need a "duh, no-brainer" and expressed hope that common sense - at least her version of it - would prevail.

"If I have to go out on street corners to collect money for a crossing guard," Cox said, "I'm going to see this through."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.