Rebecca Ashley, left, a volunteer La Grande Middle School crossing guard, makes sure traffic is stopped while a student walks through the north crosswalk on Fourth Street. Parents of some middle school students, including Ashley, are worried that people are not paying enough attention as they drive through the crosswalk on Fourth Street. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)
Five near accidents since the beginning of the school year have parents concerned about traffic safety at La Grande Middle School
Absentminded, distracted and fast driving motorists have some La Grande Middle School parents concerned about the safety of their children.
Parents are worried that their children are at risk when crossing Fourth Street in front of LMS, before and after school.
Jeff Harmon, the father of a middle school eighth-grader, said people are not paying enough attention as they drive through the crosswalk on Fourth Street.
“I’ve also witnessed three to four children in the crosswalk and people blow through,” Harmon said.
Harmon said he has twice pulled his truck out into the road to block vehicles about to blow through the crosswalk and almost hit his son, Tanner.
“People just are not paying attention,” he said.
Rebecca Ashley, a volunteer crossing guard and LMS parent, said that she has seen five near accidents involving vehicles and students in front of the middle school since the school year started. Ashley said part of the problem involves distracted drivers. She often sees drivers talking on their cellphones or using their iPads. Ashley said she also observes motorists who are driving faster than the posted speed limit.
“They are all trying to get to work on time,” said Ashley, who serves as a crossing guard along with her husband, Allen.
Harmon said he would like to see a greater police presence at the portion of Fourth Street which passes in front of the middle school. He does not see police patrolling and pulling people over.
La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey said that he has not heard any specific complaints recently.
“We periodically get people calling about school zones,” he said. “We try to hit school zone traffic as resources allow.”
Harvey said that sometimes a trailer with a speed-monitoring device is put out, but in the winter this can be problematic. He noted that the police department also does things like make sure trees are trimmed coming up the north hill leading to the middle school.
Harvey said that the middle school poses a unique challenge because of the incline.
“The field of view is not as clear as a flat, level surface,” Harvey said.
Harvey said that he tries to patrol the area in the afternoon and make sure that it’s patrolled randomly.
“School safety is a huge priority for us,” Harvey said.
He said that if people notice speeding, careless or reckless driving and are able to get a license plate number, they should call police.
La Grande Middle School Principal Kyle McKinney said the big problem at the Fourth Street crosswalk involves parents dropping or picking up their children. Parents are so focused on the wellbeing of their children that they forget to check for other children crossing the street or getting into their parents’ cars. It is critical that parents pay attention given the spontaneous nature of teenagers, he said.
“Middle school students are a little impulsive,” McKinney said.
McKinney noted that a sign provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which is placed in the middle of the Fourth Street crosswalk during school hours, is slowing drivers.
The sign has a message stating that when anyone is in the crosswalk, drivers are supposed to stop.
“The sign has really helped,” McKinney said.
The department of transportation obtained the sign, which cost $421, with federal Safe Routes to School funds. ODOT also provided new traffic cones, which cost $81, to the middle school this school year with the same funds, said Patty McClure of ODOT.
McKinney said the Ashleys are doing a good job making the Fourth Street crossing area safer. Rebecca monitors the north crosswalk and Allen mans the south crosswalk. Both walk into the middle of the crosswalks when a pedestrian is present, signal for traffic to stop and then escort the pedestrians to the other side.
The Ashleys have been serving as crossing guards in the morning since the school year started.
“We are grateful. They saw a need and stepped forward. They are worth their weight in gold,” McKinney said.
The Ashleys are the parents of a daughter at the middle school and two children at La Grande High School. The couple decided to start working as crossing guards after seeing near accidents in the crossing area.
“We decided that instead of complaining, we would try to do something about it,” Rebecca Ashley said.
La Grande Observer reporter Kelly Ducote contributed to this report.