A police officer waits every day outside Riverhead Charter School to help buses packed with children turn on and off of hectic Route 25, where the speed limit is 50 miles per hour.
The crossing guard who used to stop traffic for the school buses had to leave the job three years ago, after he was struck and injured by a vehicle while directing traffic on the busy roadway.
“Every other school in this town has a school zone around it,” said Laurie Behrhof, who co-teaches a sixth grade class with Scott Wurm at Riverhead Charter School. “Why don’t we?”
Over the past month, Behrhof’s sixth graders have been researching, collecting data and drafting letters and petitions to advocate for a school zone on the strip of Route 25 outside Riverhead Charter School in Calverton.
Riverhead Charter School, Suffolk County’s largest, opened in September 2001 as a K-5 school serving students from more than a dozen local school districts. It has since expanded to welcome sixth, seventh and eighth graders, and this year it moved into a brand new $14.1 million facility located on the same campus as the original schoolhouse.
But there is still no crosswalk in front of the school on Route 25, and there is no school zone established to lower the 50 miles per hour speed limit.
“Last year, the building we had was right next to the road,” said sixth grader Madeline Leathers. “The cars are really dangerous, and they were really distracting while we were trying to work.”
“It’s hard to concentrate,” added Anika Gott, her classmate. “They’re going so fast and they’re very loud. You couldn’t even hear.”
Although the Charter School’s new 50,000-square-foot facility is set back much further from the road than the old schoolhouse, which has partly alleviated the noise issue, the question of safety remains.
None of the Charter School’s students live close enough to walk to school – some of their 414 students hail from school districts as far away as Brentwood. But buses still need to maneuver in and out of the campus on a high-speed road with a high volume of traffic, something that Behrhof and her class find very concerning.
“Even with the police helping, it’s crazy,” Madeline said.
And Behrhof’s students say they don’t feel safe outside with so many fast cars nearby, especially those with younger siblings who also attend the Charter School.
“You’ve got kids running around outside next to a road where cars are flying by at 55 miles per hour,” Behrhof said. “You’ve got fire drills, where the kids have to spread out outside. Classes sometimes take walking field trips to the memorial down the road or to the post office, and it can be very dangerous to cross that street.”
After the school’s crossing guard was hit by a car on the job in 2011, Behrhof’s students wrote a letter to Riverhead Town officials asking for a school zone to be established. But Route 25 is a state road, not in the town’s jurisdiction, so nothing ever became of it.
When construction began on the new facility in 2012, Behrhof admits she believed a school zone would get established as part of the construction process. “I actually thought that when the building was finished that something would happen on its own,” she said.
But classes have been operating out of the new facility since January, and there has been no sign of a school zone in the area.
“We’ve tried,” Supervisor Sean Walter said this morning. “We’ve tried for a speed zone and we’ve tried for a crosswalk. But the state Department of Transportation says students do not walk to this school and they don’t cross the street, so they say there’s no need for either.”
Councilman John Dunleavy, who chairs the town’s traffic safety committee, said the town thought a crosswalk there would allow people who work at the school to safely cross the road to get to a nearby deli for lunch. But the town’s requests have been rejected.
So Behrhof, Wurm and their students decided it was time to take action.
The class decided to take on the school zone issue as their topic for “Project Citizen,” an annual part of Behrhof’s curriculum that teaches students how to solve a problem in their community.
They split into six groups to focus on the different steps of effecting change: collecting and tracking data on cars passing by the school every day, making bilingual petitions to gain support from families and community members, finding nationwide statistics on school transportation related accidents, researching solutions like speed bumps and flashing lights, and drafting letters to state officials.
The students speak enthusiastically and knowledgeably about the project.
“We really think it’d be a good idea to have flashing lights because it grabs the driver’s attention when they’re driving too fast,” said Heidy Enriquez, a student in the “Solutions” group. “That way, they can slow down and watch if there’s any kids.”
“We’re collecting data on when cars are passing by,” explained Jordan St. Fortcolin from the “Data Trackers” group. “We’re listing the days of the week, times, eastbound and westbound traffic, how many cars are coming from the post office, the gas station, that kind of thing.”
On the morning of Friday, May 28, for example, 274 cars and 95 trucks passed by the school in a span of just ten minutes.
“There’s a lot of traffic that comes by between the gas station and the post office,” Behrhof said. “It takes just one second for an accident to happen.”
“The kids are very excited and passionate about it,” Wurm said. “We’re very proud of them.”
After the letters and petitions are approved by principal Raymond Ankrum, they’ll be sent to several state officials and and handed out to the school’s parents – many of which don’t even realize that the campus doesn’t have a school zone, Behrhof said.
“We’re hoping they’ll actually listen to the kids,” she said. “It might spark someone’s attention. I just want to make sure these kids are safe.”
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