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Children wait for school buses along some of New Orleans’ busiest thoroughfares

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.

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.

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.

Jessica Williams / The Lens

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.

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.

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.”

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  • nickelndime

    One tragedy is one too many. Ms. mehok’s comment is somewhat disturbing and light weight. These charter schools, whether run by the State/RSD or the OPSB, are more concerned about finances rather than education. Too much money is being diverted away from the students. “The students” is what drove charter school law and was supposed to guide it. What is messed up now is how charter nonprofit boards are feeding on public money. Adminsitarive salaries are out of control. These individuals supposedly keep nonprofit boards informed, but all they really want to do is remian on the gravy train. Everything about students is the most important thing – safety, academic performance, nutrition, health, development, etc. What we have here is the tail wagging the dog.

  • nickelndime

    School zones are naturally located near schools. This means that the child(ren) has/have basically arrived or are near the designation (“school”). These school buses are all over the city and have pick-up and drop-off points that do not coincide with a school’s location. Plus, to save money, these charter schools are using teachers to supervise once the students arrive at school. They are not paying for crossing guards, but they are paying a lot of money for transportation.

    Have the school bus drivers re-route or move their bus pickup and drop off locations on busy streets like this, to a nearby residential side street that has far less traffic in the first place.
    Not every school bus stop is on a busy street so it will not be that many bus stops that are moved to residential streets. If it’s really dangerous, maybe the school bus can travel to both sides of the busy street and have two separate bus stops where the kids won’t have to cross the street to begin with.

    Allocate a little more money to the school bus budget to make these school bus boarding stops to be within these residential streets permanently instead of trying “to squeeze every dollar out of a school bus budget” by making transfers on these busy streets just to
    (a) save as much gas as possible,
    (b) minimize the number of bus stops and
    (c) minimize total travel time.

    The current way these school bus routes are setup does not take into account the the safety of kids arriving and departing from these boarding and drop off locations.

    If you add all the money needed for new and current
    (1) school crossing zones,
    (2) school zone flashing lights and maintenance,
    (3) the daily crossing guard and support personnel

    you will see the above money could be used to move and increase the number of bus stops to a safer residential locations as mentioned above.

    And this include those school crossing closest to schools. Sure the trip is short, but a few school buses can act as a shuttle. Plus, it would help parents find parking in residential areas as opposed to some of the really busy streets that get totally congested from parents waiting for their kids or dropping them off close to the school. This shuttle service is similar to what is used at big events to reduce congestion.

    The fact there are even Speed Camera for school zones shows that some of these school bus routes and stop locations are inherently dangerous due to busy street traffic. In fact, just adding and moving the bus stops to residential areas is safer for everyone to begin with, kids, parents, buses and other drivers. This is also not to mention the traffic jams these school buses create when stopped in heavy traffic to pick up kids or let them off.

  • nickelndime

    I smell LAWSUIT – Hello! Kate Mehok (I hope you and your nonprofit charter board have your Errors and Omissions insurance in effect and up to date because yoiu surely know that the State, White, Dobard, et al. will drop you like a hot potato)

  • Nowhere in this article does it state that Shaud was with his mother when he was struck and killed. That’s kind of an important fact don’t you think since folks are trying to use this tragedy to attack the schools? Interesting omission…

  • Steve Myers

    His mother wasn’t with him. If you look at the video, she’s not there. On the unedited video (which we haven’t posted), just after Shaud was hit his mother runs out from a house across the street. I believe some news outlets reported initially that the mother was with him, but that didn’t bear out.

  • I stand corrected then – just watched the video.

  • M. BButler

    1. The small business basic nature of a charter school contradicts that they would be willing to make extra expenditures for crossing guards, that’s why they have mostly uncertified teachers with no benefits.

    2. Pre-Katrina, there were children hit or killed on highways and throughfares that ribbon the city, where there were NO Crossing guards–N. Rampart, Louisa, N. Claiborne, St. Claude, and many others. ACORN ran many successful campaigns to win crossing guards in these areas. Children are not hit at crossing locations where there are crossing guards, period.

    3. Pre-Katrina, the City funded crossing guards, and it wasn’t a huge
    expenditure, through a line item in the Police budget. The Police never
    liked having to share a dime with the crossing guards, who were paid
    minimum wages with no benefits but that’s where they were funded. The City Council need to reinstate this program

  • nickelndime

    Why are these schools NOT paying for guards at each pick up and drop off point on the routes? School zones are nice (!), but actually behind the times since more students are being transported on buses to school campuses that are miles from their homes. As far the mother being wherever and whenever, there remains a sound basis for a legal suit against the school (nonprofit board) and the State for negligence which resulted in the boy’s death. The bus company (in this case, Hammonds Transportation) may be named, but it is not their responsibility to hire crossing guards. So, back to the original question, what attorney is handling this?