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Harford parents speak up for children walking to school

After a 15-year-old girl was hit by a vehicle last week while she was walking near Patterson Mill Middle and High School, parents of Harford County Public Schools students are urging school officials to either improve safety for their children who are walking to school or bring back bus routes that have been cut.

"There's too many cars there," Sarah Wolfe, whose 12-year-old daughter walks to Patterson Mill along Route 924, said Tuesday. "It's kind of like a double-edged sword, do you send them a way without sidewalks, with less traffic and slower traffic, or do you send them the way with traffic, but where cars are going at a high rate of speed and there's no crosswalk at 924 and Plumtree [Road]?"

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Many students around Harford County began walking to school last year after school officials consolidated bus routes to save money.

The 15-year-old was hit around 7 a.m. on Aug. 29 as she was walking through the parking lot of Lorien Bel Air, which is just south of Patterson Mill. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore with what appeared to be minor injuries, Maryland State Police said after the accident.

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The girl's father, Tim England, of Bel Air, created a petition on MoveOn.org to get buses back for Patterson Mill.

The petition is titled "Harford County School Board: Bring Back Buses."

"The walk is 1.3 miles, 100% commercial and during the morning commute," England wrote in the introduction to the petition. "The buses need to be returned before someone's child is killed."

There were 486 signatures on the petition as of Tuesday.

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England said Tuesday his daughter was released from the hospital the same day as the accident.

"She suffered a concussion and some severe abrasions, but no broken bones," he said.

England said he and her mother drive their daughter to school when they can, but their work schedules make that difficult to do regularly; she also walks with a friend.

"I feel like that might be a little safer, but I'm trying to get the bus back," England said.

Wolfe, who provided a link to the petition to The Aegis, said she has been corresponding with school officials about safety issues for walkers.

Her daughter, who is in seventh grade, began walking to school last year.

She noted students have established a "back way" to Patterson Mill through parking lots of businesses along Route 924, a route that is about three quarters of a mile, compared to at least a mile walking from residential streets and then along Route 924.

"She almost got hit a few times, walking in the parking lots, if you will," Wolfe said.

Wolfe noted there are sidewalks along Route 924, but there is no marked crosswalk at the busy commercial intersection with Plumtree Road.

"It's just a really bad area, to walk along 924 to get to school," she said.

Bel Air Elementary School parent Hillary Doherty also mentioned the accident Monday evening when speaking before the Harford County Board of Education.

"I'm here to remind you that parents are listening and watching what you do for our students, and we thank you for all the wonderful things that you do for our students," she said.

Doherty spoke on behalf of the Bel Air Elementary PTA.

The school was placed on a fourth-tier busing schedule during the 2013-2014 school year, with opening and dismissal times that are later than other schools in the county.

Doherty noted the school has lost six buses since the 2012-2013 school year, and parents lost the ability to park in the lot in front of the former HCPS headquarters off Gordon Street, a lot adjacent to the elementary school, this year.

"Our students are in more peril than ever walking home from school," she said. "Also, the parents that come to pick them up are at a severe disadvantage, as we can no longer use that parking lot for a loop."

The lot was used for dismissal last spring, but parents must park along Gordon Street this year, as the county is preparing to sell the school system property at auction.

"It is a reminder [of] how dangerous walking can be, and when you have limited parking and limited road space, especially during rush hour in Bel Air at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, it's a very unsafe situation," Doherty said.

Jillian Lader, manager of communications for the school system, said 5,751 of Harford County's nearly 38,000 students live in areas where bus service is not provided.

Those "non-service areas" are as far as one mile from an elementary school and 1.5 miles from middle and high schools, Lader stated in an email.

She said parents and guardians of those students "are responsible for determining the best and safest way for their student to travel to school."

Lader noted school officials work with the Harford County Sheriff's Office to provide safety tips to students and their families, and crossing guards are in areas "where it has been deemed necessary."

Families can find the tips on the school system's website, or work with their local law enforcement officials if they have any concerns, Lader continued.

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