New Orleans Targets Increased Student Transportation Safety

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James Owens
The rebuilding in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina extends to student transportation safety.

Last February and ever since, the City of New Orleans was in an uproar. While old wounds from Hurricane Katrina are still fresh, the Big Easy was a lot less so as it mourned more senseless loss of life, this time at the hands of a hit-and-run driver at a school bus stop.

On Feb. 3, 2014, Shaud Wilson, 6, was crossing the street to catch the school bus along with his brother and two sisters when tragedy literally struck. At twice the posted speed limit of 35 mph, then 22-year-old Arthur Toledano veered around an SUV that had stopped at the crosswalk to allow the children to cross. Toledano plowed his Hounda Crosstour into Shaud and the boy’s 9-year-old sister, Shanaya. Shaud suffered a broken leg and a severe head wound and was pronounced dead an hour later.

Shanaya later recovered from cuts, bruises and a concussion.

Meanwhile, as bystanders rushed to the Shaud’s aid, Toledano sat in his car and then fled the scene. About five hours later, police located Toledano only a dozen blocks away and arrested him.

On March 4 of this year, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison without parole after being found guilty of manslaughter and felony hit-and-run. He faced as much as 40 years in prison without parole.

Helene Goeloe, Shaud’s mother, told the Times-Picayune that she was “satisfied” with 12 years and appreciative of Judge Dennis Waldron’s harsh words to Toledano, though she added that she’ll never be relieved.

The next day on the steps of City Hall, a transportation work group that convened following Shaud’s death announced a list of recommendations to increase student safety on the way to and from school.

The Need for  Safety Improvements

New Orleans has faced its share of adversity especially since being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. But even before that dreadful week 10 years ago this August, and Shaud’s death last year – and certainly prior to the rebuilding efforts that continue to this day – the city was at a crossroads of education and safety.

“Before Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects on New Orleans, the public school system was spiraling downward in terms of the grading system established by the Louisiana Department of Education,” commented George Horne, a student transportation consultant and a retired area superintendent and director of transportation.

Two years prior to Katrina, the DOE assigned 68 public schools in New Orleans Parish to the Recovery School District. Meanwhile only 12 other schools throughout the entire state were assigned to RSD. The mission, says the DOE, is to better prepare all students who attend “chronically low-performing schools” for college and careers through the support of school “autonomy, flexibility and innovation. This is achieved through a mix of public, direct-run and charter schools where “autonomy, flexibility and innovation” are the main tenets.

The results are mixed at best. While in 2012 Louisiana jumped 15 spots to No. 23 in the nation, according to Education Week’s Quality Counts report card with an overall C+, that same publication ranked the state No. 43 in the nation for this year with a D+.

Student transportation is also much maligned.

“Interestingly, the charter schools have managed to get themselves exempt from many of the regulations that apply to public schools, including student transportation operations,” Horne added.

While the DOE was erecting publicly funded charter schools, the state legislature was passing a wide range of exemptions for them, including those covering transportation. The state’s school transportation specifications and procedures requirements consist of 31 chapters on such topics as evaluation of the student transportation system, bus body standards, vehicle inspection and maintenance, driver training, emergency evacuations, etc. The typical items one of you would expect.

But LRS 17:3996 exempts charter schools from all of that, only requiring the reporting of school bus driver arrests for being drunk while on duty or for another offense behind the wheel and that charter schools follow proper loading and unloading practices.

A law passed last July brought some improvement by requiring school districts to prohibit bus drivers from picking up or dropping off students while the bus is in a lane of traffic. Instead, loading and unloading can only occur on a road shoulder, in a school parking lot or at another “appropriate off-road location, as determined by the school board. It also does not permit students to cross any lanes of traffic to reach their bus stop.

Still, by all accounts, the loopholes have fostered a cavalier “Wild West” mentality in one of our nation’s most cultured and forward-thinking cities.

A Plan of Action

To specifically address this, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell spearheaded a working group that was convened following Shaud Wilson’s death. As a close friend of Shaud’s grandfather, she and fellow Councilman Jared Brossett, who represents District D where the Wilson family lives, worked with student transporters, law enforcement officials and representatives from the Department of Public Works and the Department of Health to draft recommendations to improve school transportation safety and cost efficiency.

The list was presented to media and the community on the steps of City Hall on last month.

“School transportation safety should not depend on your zip code,” said Councilwoman Cantrell, who serves as the chair of the Community Development Committee. “It should be a guaranteed right for every parent and child, and it is up to us to unite as a city and fix this faulty system.”

The plan has two main objectives: Primarily to improve student safety on their way to and from school and secondarily to improve the efficiency and sustainability of efforts to achieve that safety. Anna Nguyen, communications director for plan author Councilmember LaToya Cantrell, told STN student transportation costs have skyrocketed, especially following Hurricane Katrina.

Nguyen added that the March 5 recommendations call for a $500,000 Safe Routes to School grant to target community education and outreach for implementing safe biking and walking routes. It also seeks to re-implement a school crossing guard program that ceased a decade ago post-Katrina and improved school zone signage. The plan also target increased enforcement of motorists who speed or use cell phones while driving in school zones or illegally pass school buses at stops.

The plan also seeks to enhance the use of public transit for high school students and better report data on ridership as well as to provide parents more choices as to where their children can attend school, either closer to home utilizing the safe route enhancements or requiring better transportation alternatives to get across town.

Schools would also be prohibited from creating bus stops in blighted areas where crime can be high, she added, and approved stops would hinge upon not requiring students to cross multiple lanes of traffic to reach their destination, either on the way to school or home.