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Making Schools Safer

How responsible would you rate yourself as a local citizen? To what extent do you teach your children about the importance of rules, safety, and social responsibility? While we may focus a lot on making sure children look both ways before crossing and recite slogans like, "Stop, Look, and Listen," what if we turned the question back on ourselves? What if we ask how safe are we making our community roads for children?" These were some of the questions we endeavored to ask this month. The principal of Kumeyaay Elementary, Bob Jones, and one of Bob’s many exemplary teachers, Chris Schmidt, and I have been working for a couple weeks trying to integrate science teaching with literacy, mathematics, technology, and social responsibility within the literacy emphasis at Kumeyaay Elementary. We have explored motion, speed, school and societal rules, responsibility, and self-efficacy while trying to provide an authentic context for problem solving.

"How fast do/should cars actually travel in front of our school?" was the question that started it all. After using motion detectors to measure remote control cars, making graphs of constant and changing speeds, and designing experiments to test a variety of phenomena, we invited others to assist us in more accurately answering our question. A very kind yet imposing California Highway Patrol officer, Chris Knighten, came to our classroom to discuss speed limits, safety, and his equipment. Officer Knighten came armed with his radar detector to assist us with our experiments. There we all were lined up on Antiqua with notepads, graph paper, and signs in hand–quite a presence for onlookers–motorcycle highway patrol officer in full gear, standing next to his Kawasaki 1000 with radar in hand, flanked by a couple dozen students and their teachers. Lined up with poster boards, students pleaded with speeding drivers to slow down and applauded careful drivers as we observed over seventy cars pass in front of Kumeyaay for half an hour.

Unfortunately, the findings disturbed us all. Of the 68 cars we clocked and charted, 33 of them were exceeding the normal 40 mph after school hours speed limit. Officer Knight astutely reminded us all that when children were present, the speed limit drops to only 25 mph which is posted more than 50 yards in either direction of the school from where we were standing. Even more disconcerting was the finding that, despite our ominous presence, 59 cars (or 86%) that passed us were exceeding the 25 mph speed limit. It was a lesson in human behavior as students observed adults getting caught and slowing down once they realized they had been clocked. Some adults were remorseful enough to stop altogether while others sped on past without ever acknowledging the legion of students and their new police friend. Mrs. Schmidt’s students were amazingly insightful with their experimental designs and were also trained by Officer Knighten as keen observers of cars, speed, and safety. Officer Knight suggested that students point at cars that are speeding to let adults know they are not going unnoticed. It was quite an effective tactic to see cars immediately slow down as office Knight pointed his mighty finger (not detector) at the cars. Students jumped up and down with their signs elated by their newly found power to influence their neighbors and community.

When asked what we could do with our findings, students offered several suggestions; from putting up new signs, to writing the mayor. However, their innocence was something we could learn from. Some students suggested that lowering the speed limit might help. It was difficult, somewhat painful, to have to point out to children that adults knowingly were not following the rules. It painted a picture of community grown ups as something less than the moral examples we hoped they’d be. We know as adults that lowering the already existing speed limit will not affect the 33 speeders who were already exceeding the 40 mph speed limit. Neither will it bring the needed attention to children’s safety since 58 of 69 cars were exceeding the speed limit with an entire classroom of children lining the streets and a police officer pointing at them with a radar gun. To those children who believe lowering the speed limit will help, we must offer other, less naïve, explanations to press their thinking towards real societal change.

We want to congratulate the students of Chris Schmidt’s class for their commitment to safe communities and their dedication to meaningful learning. We also want to thank our friends the police officers and the 16% of drivers we found to be following the speed limit in front of our school. The temptation of course as a reader is to mentally check our schedules and wipe our brow in relief that we were off to work at 6 am–long before students were on the streets observing us. We tell ourselves, "I would never do that," all the while knowing that each of us has carelessly traveled through a school zone before. Before we exonerate ourselves as readers from responsibility, perhaps we should be asking ourselves what we have done to make the school safer. Have we intentionally motioned to other parents who are speeding to let them know our disapproval? Have we truncated a cellular telephone call in order to watch more carefully in a school zone? Have we made sure to leave early so that we would be able to slow down as much as necessary through all school zones? How much have we offered our volunteer services to make schools safer in other ways? Our intention was not to catch careless drivers in front of the school as it was to raise the awareness of the entire community that safety is all of our responsibility and we can make a difference–even if it is simply one commuter at t time.

 


 

For more information, please contact Randy Yerrick at ryerrick@mail.sdsu.edu