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McKinley Mom Drives Effective School Zone Safety Program

Led by parent pediatrician and an involved alderman, school has developed a comprehensive community approach.

An accident Nov. 7 near that prompted calls for a city and School District review of safety. On top of last spring, it seemed more needed to be done to protect Tosa's schoolchildren.

Sarah Lerand, a parent, didn't wait for the worst to happen. She could see it coming and, beginning a year and a half ago, decided to do something about it.

"After talking to some people in my neighborhood association, it was clear there was a lot of concern," Lerand said. "We got the city's attention. We came with a petition with more than 300 names."

McKinley School is a building beset with double traffic trouble. Tucked away on narrow North 89th Street, it is badly congested at drop-off and pick-up times. But that amounts to an annoyance compared to the grave danger that cannot even be seen from the school.

McKinley is just two blocks north of West North Avenue and two blocks east of Swan Boulevard, both busy thoroughfares, and many in the school's district have to cross one or both.

"It's a nightmare around here because people do not feel compelled to proceed with caution," Lerand said. "There are signs, but the police will tell you that people get used to signs.

"We requested that the city look at the crossings on North and on Swan. The accident that happened (at Longfellow) — we observed that kind of behavior all the time."

In that accident, a crossing guard was present and in the act of stopping traffic on Wauwatosa Avenue at West Wright Streeet when a driver passed a stopped car on the right and struck a 12-year-old boy. There are crossing guards on North and Swan as well, but if drivers ignore or fail to see them, more would need to be done.

Lerand presented the petition to Mayor Jill Didier, who in turn asked district Ald. Jeff Roznowski to act as liaison between the city and the school community. It was a fortuitous arrangement.

"I had just been appointed (to office), so it was a natural for me," Roznowski said. "I had kids here years ago, too."

Roznowski is not only a former McKinley parent and an alderman, he's an engineer. And he took a professional as well as personal and political interest in the problem.

Lerand is a pediatrician, likewise steeped in scientific methods and well-equipped to take a professional approach to child health and safety.

Between them, they made the decision not to rely on their own anecdotal observations, not to wait on the city to conduct studies, not to take the time and labor to find the resources to hire expensive consultants.

They would undertake the work themselves.

Getting the facts established

"We said, 'Let's take this slow and analyze it. Let's collect the data,'" Roznowski said. "Now it's not anecdote — it's fact."

Lerand and Roznowski recruited a dozen and half other parents and formed the McKinley Safe Routes to School Committee under the auspices of the Parent Teacher Association. Then they designed and implemented two important studies.

One was a schoolwide survey to determine by what means families got to school, by what routes, and how they felt about safety on the way. They learned that a majority drove their kids, many from only a few blocks away, if it meant keeping them from having to cross North or Swan.

"More than half were coming by car," Lerand said, "even on beautiful days."

They also found that even some of those who did not have to cross the thoroughfares were concerned about their children walking or biking alone. Overall, though, most parents wished their kids could walk or bike — and the kids didn't mind the idea, either.

Fears were driving congestion at the school. And they were legitimate fears, for the most part.

Police more than ready to help

At the same time, the group was working closely with the to develop data on what they really faced on North Avenue and Swan Boulevard.

The police opened their files to volumes of records from the area and provided a speed trailer for weeks to record new data. It wasn't pretty. Among the findings:

  • There had been 57 vehicle accidents in the past three years just within school hours and on school days.
  • Police had issued tickets for 43 traffic violations in the past three years during school day/hours.
  • Round-the-clock speed data showed a number of drivers hitting 60 mph on North Avenue, many reaching 55 mph, and frequent highs of 45 mph even during school hours. On Swan, a number of speeds of 49 mph were recorded, with numerous instances of vehicles traveling at up to 40 mph during school hours. Both zones are posted at 30 mph regularly, with school zones posted at 20 mph when children are present.

"Trauma data show that at 40 mph, there's a 20 percent chance of survival (for a pedestrian)," Lerand said. "At 20 mph, there's an 80 percent chance of survival. There is a hugely important difference as speed increases."

Getting to know the guards

Another area of worry exposed in the school family survey was some lack of confidence in the very crossing guards who were supposed to be providing the final line of defense.

"What are their roles? What are they supposed to do? People didn't know," Roznowski said. "We examined the city contract for service, and then we went to the crossing guard company itself."

The contractor, Twin City Security, was only too happy to sit down with the McKinley group, Roznowski said. "In fact, the president of Twin City said no one had ever gone to them before. It was novel. He wanted to hear what we had to say — and is even instituting some of our initiatives into his training."

McKinley started up its own Crossing Guard Ambassador program.

"Each crossing guard has a parent assigned who meets with them regularly," Lerand said. "The parents let them know what our concerns are and they talk about how to address them."

"We also get feedback from the guards about the children," Roznowski said. "They can't do their jobs if they aren't obeyed."

Walking buses; signs and signals

To reduce traffic generated by the school and promote a sense of security, the group instituted a Walking School Bus program.

"We asked parents who do walk their kids to school, 'Would you mind walking some more?'" Lerand said. "Then we matched up families that wanted their kids to walk but were concerned about safety with those parents.

"We have five groups doing it now, with at least five or six kids in each group, and at least two in each group who had been getting rides to school."

"There is safety in numbers," Roznowski said.

Through fundraising and grant-writing, the Safe Routes group purchased in-street pedestrian signs for crossings at North 90th Street and North Avenue and Swan at West Meinecke Avenue. They also got corner lock-boxes at those intersections to store the signs and additional orange traffic cones. They bought orange safety vests for the parents leading the Walking School Buses.

"We'd like to get more," Lerand said. "We'd like to have flashing signs."

All of which makes McKinley Principal Mark Carter very happy.

"It's a comprehensive approach to school safety," Carter said. "Before, it was all very hit and miss. I'd get a complaint, I'd have to address it as an isolated incident.

"This is collaborative. It's definitely a community effort. Once families see that there is a safe route to school, they will let their kids walk."

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Safe Routes to School is a national, state and local initiative that may provide grants to schools with traffic safety issues and provides free information.

Nick Schweitzer November 21, 2011 at 07:39 PM
The reality is that Swan and North Ave are actually not comparable to 76th Street in any way with regards to the unfortunate accident that happened there recently. Swan, both immediately south of, and also north of North Ave. is only one late. North Ave, though very busy, is also only one lane in either direction. 76th St. on the other hand is wide enough (and is driven like) its two lanes in both directions. If a car is stopped for a crossing card on Swan, there is no room for a car to attempt to pass at high speed on the right and potentially hit a crossing pedestrian (there might be some room to do so slowly, but that reduces the chance of injury). On 76th Street, it is very common to see cars driving full speed two by two. The training and responsibility that a crossing guard has on 76th St. should be pretty high. They need to not just stand in the middle, but actively look for those passing cars and stop kids who are crossing if its dangerous. Otherwise they are nothing more than walking stop signs.
Fingers888 November 21, 2011 at 07:50 PM
I don't know, Nick....I see cars passing on the right on Swan all the time. I drive that route every morning, and while there is a crossing guard, he doesn't make his presence very apparent. I've said on NUMEROUS occasions that the city needs to do something about getting him out there in a proper way where he is VISIBLE. He barely steps off the curb, weakly and numbly waves his stop sign about, and he is dangerously easy to miss. In the mornings around 8:00-8:15 a.m., those corners are bustling with parents and children walking to school and drivers who are unaware of the meek crossing guard or who are too busy to care.
mizzoutcu November 22, 2011 at 02:49 PM
Nick, I couldn't disagree with you more. My wife is the one featured in the article. One of the main reasons she got involved was that when we would cross North Ave at 90th St., cars consistently were trying to go on the right around cars stopped for the crossing guard (presumably these cars thought the stopped car was turning left). Both my wife and I have numerous close calls when walking our child to school. North Ave is plenty wide enough for this to occur. We have witnessed the same behavior on Swan as well.
Spencer Hoyt November 23, 2011 at 02:04 PM
North ave at Swan is a marked four lane road, with two lanes Eastbound and two lanes Westbound. Swan is an offset intersection with through traffic required to weave around turn lanes in both directions (Northbound & Southbound). It's important to reflect on the facts accurately... This is a dangerous & very busy intersection that needs a true scientific traffic study with attainable modifications as it's objective. It ain't working in the current configuration. Respectfully, @spencerahoyt

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