DANGEROUS CROSSINGS: Twenty minutes at Haight Elementary

DANGEROUS CROSSINGS: Twenty minutes at Haight Elementary

Michele Ellson

Video by Donna Eyestone.

Caroline Topeé faces light traffic on her walk to Haight Elementary School at 8:05 a.m Monday, which takes her, daughter Jovanna, 9, and a friend through a crosswalk that traverses Lincoln Avenue at Chestnut Street and into the school’s back gate.

“But you know what happens? Everybody drops their kids off at the last minute,” Topeé said as she headed out the door to school. “It’s chaos.”

Over the 15 minutes that followed, a reporter and videographer who visited the school Monday morning witnessed an increasingly chaotic scene that saw parents jaywalking with small children into traffic on Lincoln Avenue and double parking in traffic lanes as they hurried children off to school. One student was nearly hit in the same crosswalk Topeé used 10 minutes earlier, by a driver turning left from Chestnut to Lincoln.

“I’ve seen many accidents since I moved here,” Topeé said.

The safety issues are not unique to Haight school, parents, school administrators and police said; like many schools on the Island, the school lacks an off-street drop-off area and is bounded by major arterials traversed by dozens of cars and pedestrians who are in a hurry to get to work or school. But the visit offered a window on the dangers families face – or create – each morning, and the struggle parents and principals can face when they try to engage families in safety efforts.

Traffic begins to thicken around 8:10 a.m., and as spots outside the school fill up, parents begin parking in red zones along Lincoln and in front of the gate where children are entering school grounds. A man jaywalks across the four-lane road with a small child holding each hand, dodging motorists that, if they’re heading eastbound, are driving directly into a bright morning sun.

But the pace really picks up at 8:15 a.m., as traffic continues to grow and parents and children race down the block to beat the 8:20 bell.

Double-parked cars begin to stack up in a traffic lane next to the school, and a parent lets her child out on the driver’s side of the car, into traffic. Meanwhile, drivers turning onto Lincoln from opposing directions on Chestnut turn left and right simultaneously.

Cherish Portolese is crossing Lincoln Avenue in one of four crosswalks at Chestnut with a toddler in one arm and her daughter a few feet ahead. Suddenly a car turns left from Chestnut onto Lincoln, just missing her daughter.

Ana Rex, who is also crossing with her children, yells for the driver to wait. But the driver rolls through the crosswalk and continues down Lincoln, without slowing.

“We were in crosswalk, but that lady, she didn’t stop,” Rex tells a reporter after she’s dropped her children off at school.

Portolese, who parks a few blocks from the school each day and walks the rest of the way, says this isn’t the first time her daughter has had a near-miss with a car on her walk to school. Because the children are small, she says, the drivers don’t see them.

“Every day it’s cars almost hitting children,” Rex says.

Topeé has been trying to get the police to pay more attention to traffic conditions at the school and to recruit parent volunteers to help shepherd children through crosswalks safely, while parent Meghan Thornton has tried to coordinate a walking school bus that would enhance safety by sending larger and more visible groups of students to school at the same time. But getting parent buy-in has been a challenge, Thornton says.

“We have a lot of working parents. I think that makes a huge difference,” Thornton says. “If I have to be to work at 8:30, I can’t walk, then go back and get my car.”

Rex says she’d love to help, but she has four children to take care of.

“I really would like to help but I really don’t have the time,” she says.

Even with a crossing guard in place, the Santa Clara Avenue side of the school has challenges too. Anne Cronin has shepherded children, parents and seniors across Santa Clara for nearly eight years, and during that time she’s seen her share of jaywalkers, stop sign-runners – and accidents.

Cronin says she often sees parents shooing their children across Santa Clara Avenue mid-block, even though she’s standing just 10 feet away, at an intersection with four stop signs. Often, they are squaring off against inattentive drivers who are talking or texting during their commute, she says – and driving much faster than the 25 mile-per-hour posted speed limit. There is a trio of cars that run the stop signs so frequently that Cronin has given them nicknames, including one that scoots around a parked bus.

Armed only with a whistle, handheld stop sign and reflective vest, Cronin lacks the authority to cite scofflaws. Often, she says, parents or drivers will pretend they don’t see her.

“I’m hollering at drivers. I’m hollering at parents. But they don’t care,” she says.

Cronin says everyone – drivers and parents included – needs to take responsibility for students’ safety as they travel to and from school.

“There has to be a sense that this is their community,” Cronin says. “And they need to slow down and stop.”