By SUE SUCHYTA
HEIGHTS – Residents, especially parents, urged the police chief and the City Council on Dec. 13 to keep school zones safer for students at dropoff and pickup times.
During the Dec. 13 council meeting, speakers called for more traffic enforcement, especially at stop signs, for traffic-calming measures and for more crossing guards. Many voiced concern that adults driving children to school are among those who are creating unsafe conditions.
Dearborn Heights has three main school districts: Crestwood, Westwood and District 7. The Dearborn Public Schools have a building in Dearborn Heights and the Taylor and Wayne-Westland school districts serve parts of Dearborn Heights as well.
Inkster, which dissolved its school district in 2013, is served by the Westwood School District in Dearborn Heights, as well as the school districts in Taylor, Wayne-Westland and Romulus.
Local activist Leslie Windless said she has been a volunteer crossing guard at O.W. Best Middle School in D-7 for the past two weeks, and it has been an eye-opening experience.
“It is a war zone out there,” she said. “Just because we haven’t had a fatal accident doesn’t mean this isn’t a priority. We have had children get hit.”
Windless said at D-7’s Bedford Elementary School three people have been injured this year, and last year the principal’s foot was run over by a vehicle, which caused her to be hospitalized.
“There is something that needs to be done, whether people are dying or not,” she said. “It should be an agenda item until this is fixed.”
Windless expressed concern about the crosswalk white paint that is on back order.
“These drivers are out of control,” she said. “I had somebody flip me off the other day and I almost tracked him down. So, you don’t really want vigilantes like me out there, doing it, because it probably won’t end well.”
Windless said a more structured system, with input from the school boards and the city council, is needed.
Council President Dave Adballah said all the council can do is to continue to push the public safety officials to respond to the dangerous conditions.
“I spoke to the police chief, face-to-face, one-on-one, and he wants to move in the right direction,” he said. “He cares about people’s safety, otherwise he wouldn’t have this type of a job.”
Abdallah said he believes that the school board members care, as well as the school district administrators, and urged cooperation between the boards, city engineer Ali Dib and Police Chief Jarrod Hart.
Councilmember Mo Baydoun asked Hart what can be done when crossing guards see drivers running stop signs and lights and asked if they write down license plate numbers if it would have any impact.
Hart said he would be welcome to take license plate numbers and look into it. He reiterated that there are specific steps that his officers already have taken.
He said that the sergeant of the traffic bureau indicated that the people who are getting ticketed near school zones are the ones who live close by, and said even one person who attended a recent city council study session was among those who were subject to a traffic stop.
“We have had crossing guards quit because of the behavior of people dropping children off,” Hart said. “This is a very complex problem. We are hearing from the schools that 10 to 15 percent of the people dropping kids off are the ones creating the problem, and they are not going to change until they get a ticket.”
He said he is getting conflicting direction as to whether to educate people about their driving behavior, or to penalize them financially to encourage change.
“If you want to collect license plates, we can go back and have conversations with people,” Hart said. “But it all starts with a choice to drive around our schools and our babies recklessly.”
He said the message was not going to get across until he has police officers out there writing tickets.
Baydoun said some reckless drivers won’t change until they are faced with stiff financial repercussions.
“Nothing is worth it when it comes to a child,” he said.
Baydoun said that once ticketing occurs, people will be more mindful of their driving behavior when they drop off their children.
“They need to get the tickets and they need to get the points,” he said.
Hart said the Police Department has been in discussions with the court about fines and consequences.
“If we have to get our reserves involved, if we have to get the Wayne County Sherriff to send some reserve officers out to supplement our traffic (enforcement) around our schools, then that is what we will do,” he said.
Hart said the city’s reserve officers are volunteers.
Councilmember Ray Muscat called for tougher penalties for reckless driving in school zones.
“Running a stop sign, you’re not paying attention,” he said. “You could put a million-and-a-half signs up there, but people don’t care about the signs. This is ridiculous, and enough is enough.”
Hart said that on city border roads near schools, the department is asking bordering cities to help with traffic enforcement, such as with Inkster along Beech Daly Road.
“We are trying to build some partnerships here to take a multi-faceted approach to this,” he said. “Corporation counsel has suggested doing a campaign for people who want to volunteer their children to be in some type of safety video, something that we can push out to our community, to get people to do the right thing around our kids.”
Hart said that in his discussions with the school superintendents, the people dropping their children off at the schools are a significant part of the problem.
He said it is concerning to him that drivers during school drop-off and pickup times are creating conflict with the school crossing guards who are tasked with keeping traffic flowing safely.
Councilmember Nancy Bryer said a school crossing guard in D-7 recently quit because she was intentionally hurt by a driver.
“She was directing traffic and this car thought that she wasn’t moving fast enough with the children, and he actually hit her intentionally,” she said. “He wasn’t going very fast, but he did hit her. The problem seems to be with the adults who are not acting responsibly when they are driving.”
Hart said letters from law enforcement can go home to the parents through their children.
“I think we can all be in agreement here that this is a choice,” he said. “It is not necessarily an awareness problem. It’s a choice that people are making.”