Parents in a New Windsor neighborhood plan to drive their children to elementary school rather than put them on the school bus because the driver, according to some kids on the bus, drove through flashing railroad-crossing lights Friday afternoon as a train approached.
The alleged incident is being investigated by James Doolan, Carroll County schools supervisor of transportation. He met for 45 minutes after school Tuesday with 17 distressed parents from the Atlee Ridge development, who had showed up unannounced at the principal's office at Elmer A. Wolfe Elementary School in Union Bridge.
The parents said their children got off the bus Friday afternoon talking with excitement or fear about a close call with a train. Some parents said they initially took the story as youthful exaggeration, until the same account from different children circulated throughout the neighborhood during the long holiday weekend - prompting them to plan the visit to the principal.
Despite the meeting, some of the parents were organizing and running carpools yesterday for the four-mile trip to school.
Angel Hook said her 7- and 8-year-olds are worth the short drive.
"That's not the problem. No one can replace your children," she said. "I understand accidents can happen, but it's my children."
Dawn Bladen said her 6- and 7-year-old daughters told her they saw the train out the back window of the bus after they had crossed the tracks, but her 10-year-old son saw nothing.
"Basically, we won't be getting a new bus driver because the bus was not hit by the train," said Bladen, one of those at the meeting. "It's a sad situation. I'll have to drive back and forth, because that way I know I'm stopping at the railroad tracks."
"My 9-year-old told me," said Tricia Rossig, another parent. "She was afraid. My kids are not going back on that bus."
Her daughter Amy, a fourth-grader, said, "I didn't really see the train, but I saw the flashing lights. Usually when the bus stops, I'll look at the tracks. This time I really didn't sit up [and look] because we didn't stop."
The bus travels along Route 75 from Union Bridge to New Windsor, crossing the tracks on Church Street at Old New Windsor Road, just before the entrance to the development on Atlee Ridge Road.
Mary Stong, principal at Elmer Wolfe Elementary, contacted Doolan and made the art room available for the closed meeting with parents, who send about two dozen children to the school, and provided a nearby room for their children. She said she couldn't comment but understood the parents' concern.
The parents signed a letter to Doolan asking that the driver be removed. Many of them spoke as they awaited his arrival.
The bus driver, Roland C. Strawsburg, 74, of New Windsor, declined to comment and referred questions to Doolan.
"Any time we get a complaint, we do an investigation, even if it's just one parent," Doolan said. "I can't comment specifically on a personnel matter."
But the parents left the meeting dissatisfied, some shaking their heads in disgust and others saying angrily that Doolan seemed to be dismissing the children as mistaken or even lying after talking to only a handful of them.
"We weren't believed," said Rossig. Others agreed. She said Doolan told them the driver had an excellent record.
"I think that what I found most frustrating is we're being told the bus went through before the lights went on," Rossig said.
"We wanted [Doolan] to talk to a few more of the older kids that were maybe in the back of the bus," said Lisa Barton, another parent.
"I saw the lights flashing, and I also saw the front of the train and it almost hit us," said her daughter, Amanda, 7, a second-grader.
Dawn Shanklin stayed later than the other parents, as Doolan spoke with her daughter, Alyssa Roberts, 10.
"We got down to the railroad tracks a few minutes late," said Alyssa. "He could make it through the flashing lights. ... People were saying 'Hey, the lights were flashing. Can't you see 'em?' to the driver and each other. He didn't say anything to me. Then we saw the train. Quite a few kids could see it. It was blurry because I didn't have my glasses."
Shanklin said: "I'm not really happy. I just think they're not taking it very seriously."
She said she didn't take it too seriously either, at first, thinking her daughter was exaggerating. "But then 20 other kids said nearly the same thing."
The parents said they hoped to find an adult who saw something, who might have more credibility with authorities than their children.
Some heard the whistle and thought at the time that an accident was about to occur with someone trying to beat the train - not thinking of their children's school bus.
Doolan was unavailable for comment yesterday because of a school emergency.
Paul D. Denton, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Midland Railway Co. of Union Bridge, was unaware of the incident and said any near-collision must be reported.
"Things like that, if they are of a very serious nature - if there was a near-miss, or God forbid, a collision - would be reported to me instantly," said Denton. "I would have to assume it would not be a near-miss."
He said the company does not want its engineers talking to the press, citing liability concerns, but promised to look into the matter. There are problems with motorists crossing -including an occasional school bus, he said.
Of the whistle, Denton noted that train operators by law must sound two long blasts, one short, then another long blast of the horn at all grade crossings.
But the parents who heard the sound Friday are accustomed to the normal pattern, said Sharon Nobles, working as New Windsor's town clerk. This time, the engineer "leaned on the whistle."
"It was chilling, and I thought, 'Somebody's trying to beat the train.' It's the worst I've ever heard that whistle blown" in three years, she said.
Nobles arrived home soon afterward, where, she said, "My second-grader said, 'We almost got hit by a train.' "