By ARDEN BASTIA
Amy Kuiawa may be able to drive her kids to school as a stay at home parent, but she says the “mama bear in [her] jumped out” when the Warwick School Department released the new guidelines for bus transportation.
The Warwick Public Schools Transportation Department instituted new procedures for high school students.
During the July 14 meeting, the school committee voted to approve new walking distances for Warwick students. For the upcoming school year, students in kindergarten through grade five must be farther than 1 mile to be eligible for transportation. Middle school students must be farther than 2 miles, and high schoolers must be farther than 2.25 miles.
Families must apply for transportation by Friday, July 23 via an online application, or risk a two-week delay in transportation at the beginning of the school year.
In a post on the Community of Warwick Schools—Better Together Facebook page on July 18, Kuiawa voiced her frustrations with the new policies.
“As I understand, Warwick Ave is classified as a 4-lane state highway,” she wrote. “There have been numerous pedestrian fatalities on Warwick Ave each year due to poor lighting, driver inattention at crosswalks, potholes causing accidents and subsequent projectiles of wheels/hubcaps/mirrors, and lack of snow removal.”
The post attracted over 100 likes and more than 50 comments from parents and family members with similar concerns.
She addressed Mayor Frank Picozzi and tagged him in the post, but in a response, the Mayor said the school decisions were out of his hands.
“I understand it’s a different department and not what he’s involved in, but he’s able to enforce the sidewalk snow removal, he can get the police on board with enhanced patrols, and work with the Department of Transportation to fix the timing of the lights,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.
While Kuiawa’s children don’t rely on the bus as their first mode of transportation, she said she couldn’t not get involved.
“The more I started reading about how ridiculous it is in comparison to other cities in Rhode Island, the more frustrated I got,” she said.
Warwick has the longest walking distances to school of any district in the state. For students in Cranston’s public schools, the maximum distance is 2 miles. The maximum distance East Greenwich students have to walk is 1.75 miles.
“I’ve looked into the distances in other districts,” said Warwick parent Kimberly Regan in an interview on Tuesday. “And they all have stipulations for unsafe routes in which transportation will still be provided. Our school committee isn’t treating this like a real emergency. How do they expect people to move to Warwick if they’re not going to make safe transportation a priority?”
Regan, who works in the Exeter-West Greenwich school district, says, “as both a mother and a teacher, I believe everything needs to point to safety.”
For the Regan family, the lack of transportation is an issue they haven’t had to deal with before.
Her two children, one a student at Winman Middle School and the other a student at Toll Gate High School, “have always had transportation provided.” They’ve been students in the district since kindergarten.
“In order for them to walk to school, my high schooler, who is .1 miles outside the limit, would have to cross the on and off ramp of 195 and part of Route 117,” she said. “It’s a 45 minute walk, plus up that big hill. It’s really, really unsafe.”
She is fearful of her child walking the distance in inclement weather or, since the school day starts at 7:24 a.m., walking in the dark.
Other parents have shared their concerns with the dangerous routes in the parent Facebook pages, like Heather Olivera, who is worried about her ninth grade son walking on Elmwood Ave, Post Road, and Fairfax Drive to get from their Norwood home to Pilgrim High School.
“It’s not about the change in distance,” Olivera wrote in a Facebook comment on July 19. “My point is that we can do better for our kids.”
Regan has submitted public comment to the school committee several times, but says the response hasn’t been sufficient. She’s emailed individual school committee members, yet says that none of them have responded to her concerns.
According to the Warwick School Department’s policy, the riding limits can be waived in the instance of a temporary disability, or upon recommendation of the School Transportation Appeal Committee, a group made up of school committee members, as well as staff from police, highway, and school departments.
“We have students who are anxious and worried to begin with, returning to in-person learning, and now you have to walk 45 minutes to school,” said Regan. “We’re setting them up for failure instead of support.”
Both Regan and Kuiawa pointed out that administrators or school committee members haven’t proposed concessions to making the longer walking distances safer, like crossing guards, police presence, or additional traffic lights.
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation Safe Routes to School project started in 2009 to encourage more students to walk or bike to school. The federally funded project allocated funds to assist with sidewalk construction and repair, crosswalk repair, traffic signals, increased law enforcement, and pedestrian and bicycle safety education.
The Safe Routes to School program funded projects in Woonsocket, Central Falls, Cranston, East Providence, Barrington, Jamestown, and Providence.
According to Luke Murray of the planning department, the Safe Routes to School “isn’t a project we’re currently involved with,” he said briefly on Wednesday.
“They don’t want crossing guards on these roads because it’s too dangerous,” said Kuiawa. “I don’t even want to walk on these roads recreationally.”
During Tuesday’s interview Kuiawa brought up the tragic death of 15-year-old Kimberly Pisaturo who was hit and killed in the Warwick Avenue crosswalk on her way to Pilgrim High School in May 1, 2009.
“Here we are again,” she said. “How quickly we’ve forgotten. She died in a marked crosswalk hit by a school bus. We’re rolling the dice. My kids may be safe, but no one’s kids should be put in danger’s way.”
Kuiawa said she also reached out to school committee members, and received no responses.
Warwick Public Schools transportation coordinator Karla McGovern was unavailable for comment about the transportation changes, as was finance director Robert Baxter, who has been placed on paid administrative leave (see story in today’s Beacon).
“I hope [the school committee] hears our voices loud and clear, or they’ll hear our votes,” said Regan. “In the meantime, the most important factor is that I don’t want to see a child get hurt because of fiscal decisions. It seems like a no-brainer to me.”