Parents said their kids are forced to walk across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway service road, where trucks speed down to catch the green light.
The Education Department (DOE) granted P.S. 229 a safety variance for 25 years, but removed it two years ago, denying kids who live within a half-mile of the school access to school bus transportation.
Students in kindergarten through second grade who live between a half-mile and one mile of the school, where Big Six is located, can take a bus, but third graders and up are not eligible, under current guidelines set by DOE.
Alexandra Robinson, an expert from the Office of Pupil Transportation for DOE, said safety variances are according to a “consistent set of criteria for identifying potential hazards,” defined by pedestrian experts.
Potential hazards include intersections with no traffic lights or stop signs, areas without safe pedestrian pathways, such as sidewalks, or previously identified unsafe traffic patterns.
“Maybe at the time it was approved as a variance, there was construction,” Robinson said of the walk-route. “Maybe 10 years ago there wasn't a signal and now there is.”
But parents and civic leaders, who were joined by Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, berated DOE at the meeting, insisting that there are dangerously unsafe traffic patterns along Laurel Hill Boulevard.
They also said walking their kids to school to protect them adds stress to their own lives, and that dangerous conditions build up outside the school when cars double and triple park to drop kids off and pick them up.
“My wife and children were involved in a very serious accident at that intersection,” John McMorrow, local resident and speaker in the public comment period, said of Laurel Hill Boulevard. “They were hit by a tractor trailer.”
He and other speakers added that the buses that pick up the kindergarten through second graders are half-full, and asked why older kids can't fill up the extra space to avoid a dangerous walk to school.
“The buses were the best way to safely transport our children,” McMorrow said. “We're not asking for a bus, we're asking you to let our kids get on the bus that comes.”
Eric Goldstein, CEO of School Support Services for DOE, said parents' questions about half-full buses are logical, but added that “eligibility distances in New York City are more liberal than they are in any other part of the state.
“I don't know any other parts of the state that will bus kids that live a half-mile or more grades K through two,” he said, to which speakers replied that they are not concerned with what goes on outside of their district.
Michelle Kates said her nine-year-old daughter and P.S. 229 student, Rebecca, was denied access to a school bus 16 months ago. Instead, DOE gave her a half-fare Metrocard.
“Please don't tell me you would put your daughter on a bus with a Metrocard at her age to get to school,” Kates said to the DOE officials.
Speakers said the Maspeth truck bypass added more traffic to Laurel Hill Boulevard, making it an increasingly unsafe street to cross.
Kates said the only difference between the conditions when the variance was permitted and now is the increased truck traffic.
“It's completely unsafe,” she said. “To say that it's safe because of a slim sidewalk and a traffic light is crazy.”
Van Bramer said he believes Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott wants New York City students to be safe, but “to ask children to walk through that gauntlet which is several different lanes of highway traffic to get to school is just simply wrong.
“I think this is one of the worst decisions I have ever seen in my entire life,” he said. “It is incredibly dangerous. I don't know anyone who would dispute that.”
Van Bramer said he's spoken to Walcott, held rallies and written letters about the issue to DOE, because it's their responsibility to get students to and from school safely.
“And whatever amount of money is being saved, it pales in comparison to risking the life and the safety of even one child in one accident,” he added. “I implore you to overturn this situation as soon as possible – like tomorrow.”
At the close of the meeting, Robinson and Goldstein agreed to meet with parents and local officials for a walk around the area to have a closer look at the safety hazards in the coming months.
“The way to run transportation is not from behind your desk,” Robinson said, “but to be out in the field, out at the schools.”