Faith Summers, an 11-year-old student at Martin Behrman Charter School, must cross four lanes of traffic on General Meyer Avenue in Algiers to get to her bus stop. Credit: Jessica Williams / The Lens

Last Monday, a group of four children ran from the sidewalk to the neutral ground of Paris Avenue, a busy, four-lane road in Gentilly near an interstate ramp. Two darted to the other side, where their bus would pick them up.

Two others waited, and when they thought it was safe, they ran too. Six-year-old Shaud Wilson was struck and killed by an oncoming car; his 9-year-old sister Shanaya was also injured.

Across the river in Algiers, 11-year old Faith Summers must cross another busy, four-lane road to get to her bus stop. There is no neutral ground on General Meyer Avenue, where drivers regularly ignore the 35 mph speed limit.

Her mother often worries about her safety.

“I sat one day at a bus stop, and I notice the cars — they don’t stop when the bus stops,” Nicole Summers said. “They just go ahead, and speed on past.”

Other children are in similar situations:

  • 16-year-old Kendall Wise, an International High School of New Orleans freshman, must cross four lanes of traffic after his bus lets him off at a gas station at Lake Forest Boulevard and Bullard Avenue in eastern New Orleans.

Wise says he sometimes worries about cars stopping for him as he crosses the intersection. “Especially in the rain,” he said. “They can’t stop on their brakes that hard.”

  • In the Seventh Ward, 6-year-old Wayne Lollis crosses St. Bernard Avenue and walks along the four-lane North Rampart Street with his mother to get to and from the bus that takes him to McDonogh City Park Academy.
  • And International High School of New Orleans freshman Plinio Pavon, 16, darts across four lanes of traffic morning and evening to get to his stop on the opposite side of General Meyer and Michael Street.

Those are just snapshots of what many New Orleans children deal with every day to get to and from school. Most of the schools in the city enroll students across the city, and students generally travel farther to school now than before the explosion of charters after Hurricane Katrina.

“I sat one day at a bus stop, and I notice the cars — they don’t stop when the bus stops. … They just go ahead, and speed on past.”—Nicole Summers, parent

Spurred by Wilson’s death, The Lens looked at about 80 school bus routes for nine schools, many posted online by the school organizations. That’s just a fraction of the hundreds of bus routes for the nearly 90 schools in the city, but offers some insight on where buses pick up and drop off students.

It wasn’t hard to find stops on some of the busiest roads in New Orleans, where thousands of cars pass each day.

The Lens found stops on South Claiborne Avenue and on Elysian Fields Avenue, which have six lanes of traffic. A bus picks up and drops off students at Canal Street and Claiborne Avenue.

More than 55,000 cars pass on an average day at South Claiborne Avenue near Jackson Avenue in Central City, the location of a stop for the First Student bus company, according to figures from Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

About 20,000 cars pass Elysian Fields and North Prieur Street, where a Hammond’s bus stop is located, according to state transportation data.

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said bus stops on highly-trafficked roads is just one of many transportation problems stemming from the decentralization of the city’s schools. Bus companies create routes, but Cantrell said the schools are responsible for monitoring them.

People know that kids “have to travel across major intersections — without crossing guards,” Cantrell said. “What are we doing as the school board, the authorizing body, to ensure that this bus company is routing properly?”

Cantrell, former board president of Andrew H. Wilson Charter School, will hold a public forum Wednesday at 4:15 p.m. to address the issue. (The Lens will live-blog the meeting below.)

Bus company defends route selection

Faith Summers attends Martin Behrman Charter School Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences. Because the bus doesn’t pick her up on her side of the street, she has to cross General Meyer Avenue at Michael Street by 6:58 a.m. There’s no crosswalk there. Most of the year, the bus picks her up just after sunrise; for a few weeks in October it’s still dark.

When the bus drops her off at 3:24 p.m., she again ducks cars to get home.

Shantrell Lewis, a dispatcher for First Student, which handles Berhman’s busing, said last week that the company picks up students on the side of the street closest to where they live. She didn’t respond to our follow-up inquiry seeking a response to Faith’s situation.

Lewis said Thursday that bus routes are created with safety and efficiency in mind. The firm’s Cincinnati-based office creates the routes after they receive the student’s home addresses, she said.

Before the first day of school, the local First Student office sends drivers out on test runs to ensure there aren’t any obstacles that could impede a child’s walk home.

No one from the Cincinnati office returned requests for comment on route selection. A representative for Hammond’s Transportation, which runs Shaud Wilson’s bus, declined comment for this story.

Guidelines for busing safety

Federal guidelines advise school bus drivers to pick routes on streets with lower traffic volumes and speed limits and to avoid multi-lane roads when possible. Whenever possible, a bus stop should be on the side of the street closest to the student’s home.

Louisiana, too, has policies regarding school bus safety – children are required to walk out in front of the bus, not behind it, when they are dropped off. Children are supposed to check traffic before walking out into the street.

“The tragedy that happened on Monday happened because one driver did not choose to obey traffic law. That’s why that child is not with us.”—Kate Mehok, Crescent City Schools

State law requires drivers to stop when they approach a bus unloading or loading children, but that doesn’t always apply to oncoming traffic. When a neutral ground or other barrier separates the two directions of traffic, cars on the opposite side of the street don’t have to stop, according to state driving laws.

There is no neutral ground on the divided General Meyer, yet Nicole Summers said some cars still drive past the bus when it stops. She said she’s told officers at the nearby police station in the hopes that they will patrol more in the mornings.

A potential solution, Cantrell said, could be to use about $10.5 million that schools will receive from Harrah’s to pay for crossing guards at the busiest stops. Or, she suggested, the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board could work to centralize transportation, just as they created the OneApp common enrollment system.

Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok, whose group runs the school Shaud Wilson attended,  said that her teachers already serve as crossing guards in front of schools in the mornings. It’s not feasible to station additional crossing guards along the entire length of routes, she said.

She said Hammond’s Transportation and Crescent City frequently talk about bus safety. “The tragedy that happened on Monday happened because one driver did not choose to obey traffic law,” she said. “That’s why that child is not with us.”

She continued: “We will do everything in our power as a school to keep our kids safe, but we also need the drivers in New Orleans to obey the laws, because that also keeps our kids safe.”

Busy roads don’t worry some

Friday morning, 7-year-old Bryant Barthelemy and his sister, 15-year-old Curtisha Barnes, waited for their school bus on the corner of Lamanche Street and North Claiborne Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward. That’s just a few blocks down from the Claiborne Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal, where 30,000 cars passed on an average day in 2013, according to state transportation data.

Curtisha said she knew Shaud Wilson had been killed on a busy street like the one she was standing on. But she said she wasn’t scared because they don’t have to cross the street to get to their stop.

At St. Bernard Avenue and North Rampart Street, Renata Lollis was waiting Friday with her six-year-old son Wayne.

Lollis also had heard of Wilson’s death, but she didn’t think that would happen to her son. Unlike those four children crossing Paris that day, “I’m always with him,” she said. “He doesn’t cross the street without me.”

Live blog of public forum