Parents of Howard County elementary school students believe their children are safe in school but are worried about their safety while walking to and from schools, according to a recently completed safety survey by the county PTA Council.
The council's first survey of 678 parents of elementary, middle and high school students also found that they're concerned about bullying and fighting that occurs at schools even among younger children.
"My impressions from reading the responses is that people generally think the schools are safe," said Wanda Hurt, the PTA Council's safety committee chairwoman, who compiled the survey results. "There are some concerns about fighting, bullying and harassing, but not to large degrees.
"The most consistent concern was with walking to and from school, whether it was from parents in western Howard County or parents in Columbia. There's a feeling that some paths are not well maintained and some in the winter get really icy."
Isolated sections of paths to school also tend to be the places where fighting and bullying occurs, Ms. Hurt said.
The PTA survey was distributed to an undetermined number of parents through school PTAs. Although responses were received from elementary, middle and high schools, the overall results are more specific to elementary schools because 525 of the 678 responses came from parents of those children.
The results of the survey were distributed two weeks ago to the Howard County school board at its most recent meeting. Susan Cook, the board's chairwoman, said the board appreciates the PTA Council's efforts and will look into the concerns raised by the survey.
Although not scientific, the survey does appear to reflect the greatest concerns that parents brought before the board this past school year -- requests for transportation.
The board heard at least four appeals this year from communities seeking bus service for elementary school children because parents feared that the children's walking routes to school are too dangerous.
The school system's policy calls for bus service to be provided only for those elementary school students who live farther than a mile from school.
Older children must walk to school if they live within a mile and a half of their middle or high school.
The four appeals involved safety complaints ranging from dangerous street crossings to construction sites along the walking routes. The board turned down the appeals after examining each of the routes and finding that they are safe.
Nevertheless, the survey found that more than half of the elementary school parents who responded believe that their children are not safe when they are walking to and from school. Most believe that the county's school buses are safe, and almost half take their children to and from school themselves.
Ms. Hurt said her committee will try to work with individual schools later this summer to try to improve the safety conditions along paths that students use to walk to and from school.
"We'll start looking at ways we can educate our children to be safer, and maybe we can organize groups of older children to walk with the younger children every day," Ms. Hurt said.
Ms. Cook said that ensuring safe walks for the children "is going to have to be a cooperative effort between the schools and the parents."
"The school system is limited in its resources, and we must depend on parents to help us provide the safest walking routes for our students," Ms. Cook said. "I don't mean that they must monitor the routes, but I need to know if parents think a route is unsafe and why, so we can look at it."
The parents' concerns about fighting in elementary schools appear to be more a matter of perception than reality.
In 1993-94 -- the most recent available statistics -- only five elementary school students were suspended for fighting, a decline from 28 such suspensions two years earlier. Suspensions in elementary schools for poor behavior -- including weapons violations -- rose only slightly from 1991-92 to 1993-94.
The PTA Council plans to begin conducting the safety survey annually, Ms. Hurt said. She hopes that more middle and high school parents will respond next year to provide better information on their safety concerns.