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Watchdog

Who keeps school children safe as they cross the street?

That's a question parents and the crossing guard at King-Westwood Elementary have been asking of a bureaucracy slow to answer.

Sue Dueweke said she’s called the county road authorities three times, emailed twice, brought concerns about kids’ safety to the King-Westwood Elementary School in Kalamazoo twice, and personally informed the liaison from the police department that employs her. That’s in addition to leaving them a couple unanswered messages.

An experienced crossing guard who has been working since Oct. 4 at King-Westwood, Dueweke felt there were lives at risk without an actual painted crosswalk or signage on either side of the road she leads students across twice a day.

It hadn’t been replaced since road construction began. On top of that, the speed limit on Nichols Road, where the school sits, increased to 45 mph as part of the upgrade. Neighborhood residents have complained that it’s too fast. The only warning signs to drivers are a block down the road in either direction from the school, reducing the speed to 25 mph when Dueweke activates the yellow warning light during school crossing time.

“There are days I am afraid she is going to get hit. Several times they almost hit Sue because she won’t let the kids cross until [vehicles] are fully stopped,” said Beth Marshall, who parks near where the crosswalk is supposed to be located to drop off her third grader. “It’s scary.”

The week after Dueweke began, a mid-sized industrial vehicle crashed into a vehicle exiting the school. Police said speed wasn’t a factor. Weeks before she began, a driver likely distracted by their phone rear-ended a school bus, multiple parents said.

“It easily could have killed a group of students,” Ethan Alexander said, walking back to his car after dropping off his fifth grader, his second child to go through King-Westwood.

Like many schools contending with more students and busier roadways, King-Westwood’s parking lot isn’t big enough for an efficient drop off for all parents who drive their kids, so many park on adjacent streets and bring them to Dueweke. 

On Tuesday, NowKalamazoo observed the morning pedestrian commute there, and spoke to parents who said more needed to be done to protect their kids. They not only want what should be a perfunctory crosswalk stripe on the street and a sign at either side of the street indicating its presence. They want more signs, lower speed limits, even a traffic light.

“Now that it’s 45 mph, people are doing 65. There’s no signage, just a blinking yellow light, and you can barely see it, especially when people are going so fast,” said Sean MacKenzie, a father of a first and fifth grader, who also lives on Nichols Road. “Whoever is in charge should do something.”

That seems to have been a sticking point. There are ostensibly three government entities with varying authorities that could have done more – sooner – to increase safety for the students, parents, and Dueweke.  

The school is in the jurisdiction of the Kalamazoo Township Police Department, which contracts with the crossing guards. Earlier this school year, before Dueweke began, an officer filled in, stopping traffic as needed during the hour before and after school. A police vehicle was visible as well. 

Police Lt. Darien Smith, the township’s second in command, said there haven’t been more accidents than normal since the speed and construction changes. 

And they don’t have the staffing to keep an officer there twice every day – the township boundary wraps awkwardly around the north and west parts of the City of Kalamazoo and into both Comstock Township and the City of Parchment, covering parts of four school districts and private schools.

“I don’t think paint on the road will fix poor drivers’ behaviors,” Smith told NowKalamazoo on Tuesday. 

Dueweke wrote in a follow up email that on Wednesday morning the police told her that although they are short on staff “they are going to try to get an officer with a radar gun out to the area during the prime times.”

“Truly, in the end, if signage is going to fix those problems, those are things that are all the responsibility of the Kalamazoo County Road Commission,” said Smith.

Indeed, Nichols Road falls under the control of the Road Commission of Kalamazoo County, and all signage and other precautions are up to them. As is the speed limit, and construction.

Commission Communications Administrator Sarah Phillips said the delay in creating the crosswalk paint and signage was a bureaucratic issue created by Kalamazoo Public Schools.

“The school and local officials were advised on January 8th of 2021 regarding the Walk to School Plan,” Phillips wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon. “We received a completed Walk to School Plan on 10/28/21.” 

Three weeks later, work is about to begin.

“Crosswalk markings will be tentatively placed Friday, weather permitting,” Phillips wrote. “There will be signs erected within the next couple of weeks as part of the project. These will be standard school crosswalk signs.”

When asked why there was such a delay in submitting the plan which is alleged by parents and Dueweke to have compromised student safety for the first two and a half months of the school year, Susan Coney, Executive Director of Communications and Marketing at Kalamazoo Public Schools, sent this statement by text message on Wednesday evening:

“When the school year began as the Nichols Road project was still underway in front of King-Westwood Elementary, the school zone flashing lights were activated and Kalamazoo Township Police Department officers or a crossing guard have been utilized to assist students cross Nichols Road safely. KPS submitted a Walk to School Plan on Oct. 28 and has been informed that a crossing walk will be repainted in front of the school this Friday. Student safety is our top priority. The driving public is reminded to be extremely cautious in school zones and to adhere to the reduced speed limits during arrival and dismissal times.”

On the chilly but sunny Tuesday morning this week, Dueweke looked at the front of the school during a lull in student arrivals, and praised the school staff who she sees manage the twice-daily chaos and orchestrates kids to their buses, waiting cars, and crossing guard.

She’s heard talk of bigger signage to catch drivers’ attention, and heard rumors that painting the crosswalk would start. But every day that doesn’t happen, it’s another day she and parents see as a heightened risk for an accident.

“That’s what I worry about every single day,” she said.

She goes out into the street, alone at first, a red light she bought held out in one hand and a stop sign with white lights affixed around it by her husband in the other hand. 

“OK, you can cross,” she hollers to a girl in a pink winter hat, coat, backpack, and smile, who waves at Dueweke with one hand as her father holds onto the other.

After another lull, a mother watches from the sidewalk as her young son’s legs pump fast.

“Yalla, habibi,” Arabic for “get going, my dear,” she says too quietly for her son to hear – a mother’s prayerful reassurance to herself as he runs past the crossing guard and on to school.