Las Vegas Sun

August 27, 2014

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Kids’ safety at a crossroads

To report problems with signs, crosswalks or other school-zone safety features, contact the public works and traffic operations departments for these cities:

* Las Vegas: 229-6327

* Henderson: 267-3200

* North Las Vegas: 633-1313

To report problems outside city limits, call Clark County's traffic operations division: 455-7544

Every school day for the past six years, crossing guard Bob DePalma has donned an orange safety vest and taken up his post at the intersection of Decatur Boulevard and Pennwood Avenue.

His job is to guide students at nearby Elaine Wynn Elementary School safely across the boulevard, making sure everyone stays within the relative safety of the crosswalk boundaries.

It would help, DePalma said, if the some of the street markings were more than barely visible to motorists and pedestrians.

"Some of the lines you can't hardly see," DePalma said. "And when the crew came through and fixed the cracks in the street, they tarred right over the crosswalk."

A recent spate of pedestrian accidents -- including the deaths of two children -- has spurred debate over crosswalks, crossing guards and the safety of the county's school zones.

Since the school year began Aug. 29, there have been 17 traffic-related incidents near district campuses.

Two resulted in students' deaths.

Amanda Aragon, 11, died in October after being struck by a hit-and-run driver as she used a crosswalk to make her way to Sawyer Middle School.

And Timothy Hill, 12, died Dec. 17 of injuries suffered Oct. 26 after he was struck by a car while on his way to class at Findlay Middle School. Police say the boy was attempting to cross Ann Road outside of any marked crosswalk when he ran into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

DePalma said he has been trying for years to get the crosswalks repainted. Calls to the county and city public works departments have yielded nothing but frustration, he said.

"They say, 'You're not on the list -- maybe it's not a major crosswalk,' " DePalma said. "I say, 'If it ain't a major crosswalk, why do they have three crossing guards?' "

Bobby Shelton, county Public Works Department spokesman, said the crosswalks at Decatur and Pennwood are Las Vegas's responsibility. The city maintains the signal lights at the intersection.

"They would have to be the ones to go out and fix it, not us," Shelton said.

But Ebony Folk, management analyst for the Las Vegas' traffic engineering division, said her crews were out Sept. 2 to repaint crosswalks to the east of the intersection. The crosswalks to the west fall in the county's domain, Folk said.

"We repainted our portion after a request by Metro (Police)," Folk said. "The school is actually in the county, but if it turns out we need to go back out and do it (the remaining crosswalks), we will."

To DePalma, the haggling over boundary lines is a waste of time.

"If the county does one side and the city does the other, why can't they meet in the middle?" DePalma asked.

DePalma's unsuccessful quest is indicative of the bureaucracy and red tape that hamper requests for assistance with even the most basic pedestrian safety measures, said Erin Breen, director of the Safe Community Partnership.

"How insane -- to put territory boundaries above people's well-being," Breen said. "Crossing guards have been trained not to be lulled into a false sense of security that the paint on the ground will save them, but at least it gives them some recourse to say to drivers, 'Here's where you stop.' "

Once notified that crosswalks need repainting, the Las Vegas Public Works Department is typically quick to do the work, she said. The county also is responsive, though slightly less speedy, which is understandable given that it involves "a bigger bureaucracy," Breen said.

The problems arise when neither agency is able -- or willing -- to accept responsibility for the work, Breen said.

Plans for a new countywide school safety committee, which would include representatives from the School District, municipal agencies and law enforcement, could help streamline the process, Breen said.

An organizing session for the committee was held earlier this month at the Clark County School District's new offices on West Sahara Avenue. Gina Greisen, a parent who has been outspoken on traffic safety, came up with the concept.

"Communication is the key to saving lives," Greisen said. "And these are kids we're talking about."

Greisen said in advance of the next committee meeting she and Scott Konnath, a former Army engineer and the father of two young children, are collecting examples of "best practices" used elsewhere.

Phoenix's school safety program has earned national recognition as a comprehensive approach to school safety. The Arizona city's Web site includes forms for conducting audits of crosswalks, tips for developing safer walking routes to and from campus and a guide to training volunteer crossing guards.

"We could learn a lot from Phoenix," Greisen said. "I really hope people get on board and start taking these situations seriously. No one's child should die in vain."

Walt Rulffes, Clark County interim superintendent, said there is no formal process for school employees to report issues such as faded crosswalks or traffic signs that have become obscured.

"With the safety committee, we'll be able to be more aggressive in developing uniformity and the most effective preventative measures possible," Rulffes said.

The situation near Wynn Elementary School is far from unique, said Gerdie Owens, a supervisor for Metro's crossing guard program.

"I just went through this same thing at Ober (Elementary) School," said Owens, who has been with Metro for 10 years. "The city came out and painted their three crossings and said the other is county, not theirs, and they wouldn't paint it. I begged them, but they wouldn't do it."

Metro provides nearly 400 crossing guards for the elementary schools. Each guard is required to report faded crosswalks and other potential hazards to a supervisor, who in turn sends in requests for maintenance to the appropriate agency, Owens said.

"Oh my, nearly all of our crosswalks all over town need to be repainted," Owens said. "They (the Public Works Departments) are telling us they're short of help and that's why it isn't getting done."

Shelton said requests for crosswalk maintenance comes from a variety of sources, including Metro and the public. Hundreds of studies of school zones -- including crosswalks, speed limits and four-way stops -- are conducted annually, Shelton said.

While the county "probably has crosswalks that need to be repainted," there were no work orders outstanding as of mid-December, Shelton said.

"We don't have the kind of manpower to go driving around and looking for what needs repainting," Shelton said.

"We rely on the public for a lot of what we do. If our guys are out and they see a problem, they'll stop and fix it. But a lot of times we don't know there's a problem until somebody calls us."

Emily Richmond can be reached at 259-8829 or at [email protected]

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