A plan to discontinue school bus service to some 70 students at Waterloo Elementary School has raised safety concerns among the parents of those children.
Parents in Columbia's Kendall Ridge neighborhood fear for the safety of students who will have to walk the less than one-mile route across a secluded, wooded area to get to school, saying there is little visibility and many animals that roam the area. Some parents say even if they were to accompany their children to school, they would be afraid to walk home alone.
They also say there is drug activity and crime in neighboring communities and cite recent instances of break-ins to their homes and cars.
"I don't feel this community is safe," says Liz Williams, whose 5-year-old daughter in kindergarten will have to make the trek by herself. "Ninety-eight percent of the people [who live near the area] work. If the students were jeopardized on the way to school, there's no one to help them. No way can a 5-year-old come up with a safe decision by themselves in the middle of the woods."
Police reported that in the first six months of this year there were no reports of drug violations and two reports of theft and car theft in the Kendall Ridge area, including Old Montgomery Road, Silver Trumpet and Each Leaf Court. There were also four assaults, none involving children.
But parents say as recently as two weeks ago, they've seen people using illicit drugs in the woods.
The small path in dispute winds around tall, lush trees, follows a small creek and goes past a back lot of the county's Bureau of Utilities, where students have ready access to big steel tubes and machinery.
Mrs. Williams and other parents have collected more than 40 signatures for a petition urging school officials against discontinuing the bus route. They have also enlisted the help of county councilman C. Vernon Gray, who walked the route
Thursday to see whether it was secure for children to go to school. He pledged to help get bus service restored.
"The issue is safety," says Gil Valdes, another parent. "That's the point] of the whole thing. They're not willing to provide any security on the path."
Mr. Valdes says Howard County "needs to go back and look at the one-mile walking distance. They need to allow the policy to see what they can do about it. Things are different nowadays. Things are not as safe as they used to be."
Under county school system regulations, no bus service will be provided to elementary or middle school students unless they live more than a mile from school. No bus service will be provided to high school students unless they live more than 1.5 ** miles from the school.
School transportation officials say they decided to stop school bus service to the 70 students in Kendall Ridge after the Columbia Association built pathways as part of its open space plan. School officials have built a 1,200 linear-foot pathway across the rear of the school to connect to the association's pathway, allowing close access to homes that previously received bus service.
"The pathway is very comparable to many, many pathways around the Columbia area," said Glenn Johnson, transportation director. "It's not better or worse. It meets or exceeds other pathways."
To a nature lover, the path is located in a beautiful and serene area to unwind and to watch rabbits, squirrels and other animals in their natural habitat. But to 10-year-old LaShaun Woods, the path represents a scary place where she does not want to travel. As she walked the path last week, her feet getting wet in puddles, she pointed to hiding places where she felt people could lurk.
"I was afraid of the big trees," she says of the first time she and her father, Douglas Woods, walked the route. "When you get to the bridge, you're totally surrounded by trees. If I walked this everyday, I would be terrified. As much as I love the woods, I don't like this one."
Because there is parental concern, school officials will turn the matter over to a Walking Route Committee, made up of two parents, a Columbia Association representative, a county police officer and a county traffic safety engineer.
The committee will look at the route and the number and ages of students who will walk the route to make a non-binding recommendation to be forwarded to Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who will make the final decision.
Parents unhappy with Dr. Hickey's decision may appeal to the five-member county Board of Education.
The pathway bordering the school is part of the Columbia Association's two-year plan to lay 24,000 linear feet of walkway in the Kendall Ridge neighborhood near Long Reach. The final phase is a 5,000 linear-foot pathway that connects Tamar Drive, Good Hunters Ride and Snowden River Parkway.