Six years ago, a first-year high school student at Harrisonville School District in Missouri was killed after being struck by a car while walking home from school.
Out of the tragic situation, a community partnership called the Harrisonville Cares Coalition was formed to improve pedestrian safety around schools and the surrounding community, said Jill Filer, director of communication and community relations for Harrisonville Schools. The coalition includes the school district, the local police department, the city government, the district’s bus company, the Missouri Department of Transportation and others.
As students return for the new school year, pedestrian safety is one of many topics on administrators' minds, and school communications about safety practices play a critical part in ensuring students get to and from school safely.
In 2020, one in five children under the age of 15 killed in crashes involving a motor vehicle were pedestrians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Research analyzing the CDC’s 2014 School Health Policies and Practices study found that in most schools, up to 10% of students walked or biked to school on an average day. The National Center for Safe Routes to School has found the barriers preventing more students from walking to school include distance, traffic-related dangers, weather, crime and school policies.
To address some of these roadblocks to student pedestrian safety, working with community stakeholders is critical. In fact, school district officials have found this approach effective in Harrisonville as well as in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Harrisonville coalition meets every six weeks. When the group is alerted to trees blocking stop signs or roadways, those issues can be addressed quickly, Filer said. Sidewalk improvements are top-of-mind for the coalition, too, she said.
When students return to school or the weather permits more students walking to school, communications promoting student pedestrian safety are spread quickly spread throughout the school community with help from the coalition’s partners, Filer said.
A lot of the pedestrian safety messaging is put out through social media, Filer said. Several high school students have also joined the coalition, and they help share those messages with their peers, she said.
The district has encouraged students to keep their heads up as they’re walking or biking, Filer said, and to avoid wearing headphones in both ears so they can be aware of their surroundings.
Charlottesville City Schools in Virginia has placed a major focus in the new school year on student pedestrian safety. Over the summer, the district expanded walk zones to include about 800 more students because of a years-long school bus driver shortage, said Beth Cheuk, the district’s community relations coordinator.
In June, the district began reaching out to parents for ideas to improve student pedestrian safety. Responding parents identified intersections throughout the city that raise concerns for their children who walk and bike to school, she said.
“Part of the movement and the energy behind what’s going on in Charlottesville this summer is that people who are really interested in making Charlottesville a more bikeable, walkable community have really come alongside us on this,” Cheuk said. “The point is we can put school children front and center for this, but if we make these intersections safer, we’re really benefiting everybody in this city.”
The district has also doubled the number of crossing guards from five to 10, and there are hopes to hire a few more, said Jason Lee, Charlottesville City Schools’ supervisor of facilities, safety and operations.
In high-density neighborhoods, the district and various community members have organized walking groups led by division staff to help guide students safely to and from school daily. Schools have also distributed 500 signs asking drivers to “go slow” for students walking to school, said Amanda Korman, the district’s community relations liaison.
With the collaboration between the city and school district, a list of immediate improvements to the roads, crosswalks and sidewalks were addressed throughout Charlottesville over the summer, Korman said.
“It was a collective process with different community agencies coming together to find resolutions for an issue that we had, and I think that was the most powerful and biggest takeaway that we had,” Lee said.