WALLA WALLA -- Concerned parents are forming a task force to address increasing traffic concerns as children come and go to school.
Walla Walla School Board members and top administrators got the chance to hear from two parents during Tuesday night's board meeting.
The mothers spoke about continued problems with children and adults walking near schools, and vehicles that regularly disregard pedestrians in crosswalks or at intersections.
The call for action came to a head last week after two Pioneer Middle School students were struck by a vehicle while crossing in a crosswalk to wait for their bus to school.
The boys were struck about 7:20 a.m. Thursday near Tausick Way and Alder Street. Both were taken to Providence St. Mary Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries. They were released the same day. Walla Walla Police also cited the driver for failing to yield.
But School Board members learned Tuesday that both boys have needed continued medical attention. Katie Christianson, one of the concerned parents, told the board one boy was suffering debilitating headaches. The other boy returned to the hospital for possible internal bruising.
"My responsibility as a mother is to keep these kids safe, no matter what it takes," said Kathryn Southwick Hess, who walks with her children the six blocks from her home to Edison, and another block from there to Pioneer.
To reach the schools by foot, many families cross Alder or Roosevelt streets, two high traffic streets that get particularly congested and risky as children go to and from school.
Southwick Hess described the daily fears she and her daughters experience as they battle for the right to cross the street.
"We've encountered life-threatening situations," she said. She described how at intersections with lights yielding the right of way to pedestrians, drivers continue to enter the intersection or make turns without looking properly.
"We've had the hell scared out of us trying to get to and from school," Southwick Hess said.
Christianson said the purpose of addressing the board was not to simply relay horror stories, but to seek help and support in getting the problem addressed.
"Pedestrian safety is at risk far too often for our children," Christianson said.
The task force being called for would draw representatives from the School Board, the district, community, law enforcement and other interested or relevant groups.
Christianson called the pedestrian safety matter an "incredibly important issue," and asked for quick action in getting a group together.
Walla Walla Public Schools Superintendent Mick Miller, who accompanied the two injured boys to the hospital last week, echoed the gravity of the problem and voiced his support for the task force, offering the district's administrative building as a possible meeting site.
"We really want to work with this task force," he said.
Miller noted that since the accident he has met with Police Chief Chuck Fulton and plans to meet with the city manager and others soon. He said even at Whitman College, with an adult student population, students rely on a clearly marked crosswalk with lights that blink along Isaacs Avenue near Main Street to guide pedestrians while cautioning drivers.
Miller pointed out that making eye contact with drivers can help increase safety and added to never assume a stopped vehicle has noticed you walking or about to walk across the street.
In the last few years, many projects have been developed to increase safety for children walking or biking to and from school.
Blue Ridge Elementary and Pioneer Middle School, in a partnership with the city of Walla Walla, benefited from the federal Safe Routes to School program through grants to improve curbs, sidewalks and visibility.
A new crosswalk was installed at Chase Avenue and Chestnut Street to benefit children walking to Garrison Middle School, while also increasing safety for other pedestrians crossing the busy street. The improvement extended curbs, marked crosswalks at all intersections and brought signs and lighting to draw drivers' attention.
Edison and Prospect Point Elementary have made recent improvements to bus and parent drop-off sites.
Near the end of the meeting, board member Max Carrera spoke on behalf of the district's efforts addressing traffic and safety around the schools. He felt the district's obligation to keep children safe was being met and the real matter now lies with the city.
"This is a law enforcement issue that has to be addressed by law enforcement," Carrera said.