A Montgomery County Planning Board member said Thursday she is “frustrated” that some school bus stops are on busy roads because it jeopardizes student safety.
During an emotional joint meeting with the school board, Planning Board Vice Chair Natali Fani-Gonzalez said tearful parents have told her they are afraid their children will be hit by vehicles while waiting for their school bus along major county thoroughfares like Georgia Avenue.
Fani-Gonzalez, appointed to the Planning Board in 2014, questioned whether the county’s Department of Transportation could take control of school bus operations.
“We need to start thinking outside the box and I’m wondering … if now, knowing that kids ride for free on Ride On buses, why doesn’t DOT handle school buses and have a mix of Ride On and school buses for students,” Fani-Gonzalez said. “I want you to focus on education. … I’m trying to be respectful about all of this, but I’m frustrated.”
MCPS staff and school board members responded by saying the school district’s Department of Transportation is doing “great work” and is working to ensure students’ safety.
MCPS Chief Operating Officer Andy Zuckerman said the school district takes student and pedestrian safety “incredibly seriously and very urgently.”
Approximately 100,000 MCPS students ride school buses each day, according to MCPS data.
In December, a Walter Johnson High School student was critically injured when he was hit by a car while attempting to cross Montrose Road to board a school bus.
The typical bus that the student, Eyal Haddad, takes arrives on the same side of the street on which he lives, according to MCPS officials. On the morning of the crash, however, Haddad was likely attempting to get on a bus that arrives 16 minutes later across the street, MCPS Transportation Director Todd Watkins said during a County Council committee meeting last week.
Less than 24 hours before Haddad was hit, 9-year-old Sophia Chen, a Bradley Hills Elementary School student, was hit by a school bus after being dropped off at a nearby stop. She died shortly afterward at a local hospital.
In October 2018, four MCPS students were injured, one critically, when a car crash on Georgia Avenue sent a vehicle onto the sidewalk where the students were waiting for their school bus.
The crashes highlight the need to move stops away from busy roads with high speed limits, Fani-Gonzalez said.
Watkins told the County Council last week, and reiterated on Thursday, that MCPS has undertaken a countywide review of its bus stops. The study is to determine if any should be moved to quieter streets, Watkins said.
Not all stops can “reasonably” be moved, Watkins said, due to road conditions and tight turnarounds in parking lots of apartment complexes.
The review, however, takes time, he said, and Fani-Gonzalez is eyeing short-term solutions. She emphasized the need for more crossing guards around schools and bus stops before and after school and for raised, marked crosswalks.
“I think the point is not saying, ‘Don’t cross the street,’ but figuring out how to make it safe to cross the street,” Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson said.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org