Cars hit two children six days apart in front of Rapid City elementary schools.
“I don’t remember this ever happening before,” Rapid City Police Lt. Brian Blenner said Thursday. “It’s a big blip on the radar.”
Minor injuries resulted at Wilson Elementary on Oct. 25 and at Robbinsdale Elementary on Oct. 19. Officials feel fortunate to have dodged two tragedies, but the incidents grabbed their attention. Police have concentrated patrols around school zones during drop-off and pickup times. School officials have asked principals to redouble scrutiny of safety plans.
It's natural to point fingers of blame when a kid gets hurt, but officials say if any good is to result, let’s point one finger at ourselves.
“It’s a community issue,” said Matt Seebaum, RCAS assistant superintendent for educational services. Improved child safety will take the combined efforts of kids, parents, drivers, police, school staff and principals.
“We need to have awareness and pay attention.”
Changes in crossing guard manpower wasn't to blame, officials said.
Crossing guards were manning crosswalks at both schools on the days of the mishaps, Seebaum said. Neither accident happened at a crosswalk. They occurred between them as students exited vehicles on a far curb and crossed toward the school, entering traffic from behind other vehicles.
The Rapid City Police Department opted not to employ crossing guards after the 2016-17 school year, but Rapid City Area Schools currently employs more guards than police did, Seebaum said.
Police discontinued their crossing guard program after a national review showed few police departments still employ crossing guards, Blenner said. The intent was to transfer control over guards to the district, which has a better handle on individual school needs and greater flexibility, he said.
The cost of providing crossing guards didn’t factor in the decision, Blenner said, and it isn’t an issue for the district, Seebaum stressed. The district now pays paraprofessionals for an extra half hour of work daily. The expense is minimal, Seebaum said.
Before this school year, police employed guards going back to the 1970s, Blenner said, probably starting after an accident. Back then, roughly 60 percent of students were walking to schools, with most crossing at crosswalks. Today, 15 percent of students walk, which also means more cars fill streets across from schools. The recent police review, Blenner said, found as few as four students used some manned school crosswalks.
In the Wilson incident, a student entered the driver’s view just below a blazing morning sun. Otherwise, the weather was clear on both days. That reinforces the need for increased awareness, Seebaum said.
“Let’s add rain or sleet or snow to this scenario,” he said.
Local and national statistics cause a measured level of concern regarding pedestrian accidents.
A Rapid City Police report from March 2017 shows cars hit pedestrians in the city 23 times in 2014, 17 times in 2015, and 24 times in 2016. Most happened at night. Pedestrians were faulted in 14 of the 24 incidents of 2016, mostly for improper street crossing.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says between 2004 and 2013, more school-age pedestrian fatalities occurred during school pickup and drop-off — between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. — than any other hours of the day.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, meanwhile, shows a rising incidence of pedestrian fatalities nationwide. Between 2010 and 2015, pedestrian deaths increased 25 percent while total traffic deaths increased just 6 percent. Some anecdotally fault smartphone distractions.
That same report, however, ranks South Dakota’s rate of pedestrian deaths among the nation’s lowest. Per capita, South Dakota has one-fifth the pedestrian fatalities of Delaware.
Two Rapid City mishaps don't classify as a cluster. Two trips per day for the district’s 13,000 students over the first 40 school days created 1 million opportunities for problems. There’s simply scant room for imperfection when residential streets clog with jostling cars and impetuous 6-year-olds.
Parents who drop off kids across the street from a school should teach their children to cross at the crosswalk, Seebaum said. If necessary, they should escort children across the street.
Drivers should be ever vigilant. Parents should consider changing how they approach school to avoid dropoffs at the far curb.
Parents need to teach kids to look both ways and to make eye contact with drivers before proceeding, Blenner said.
“Eye contact is big,” he said.
And slow down, Seebaum said.
“Even at 5 mph,” he said, “if a kid gets hit, that can really harm them.”