More than five years ago, Brittany Daniel’s half-hour walk home from school ended abruptly when a Ford F-250 turned left on Glenwood Avenue — striking the 12-year-old as she approached her home on Patterson Avenue in North Akron.
“I was on bed rest for about three weeks. After that, I was on crutches for the next three months,” said Daniel, now 17 and home-schooled after leaving Akron Public Schools. “My grades definitely dropped when [the accident] happened because I missed a lot of school.”
Daniel suffered a concussion and three pelvic bone fractures. After Daniel regained her ability to walk, three months of psychiatric counseling ensued.
“I was really terrified to cross the street,” she said. A counselor held her hand as she slowly overcame her fear. “It was like a post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Daniel suffered more than most, but her story is common among urban students.
In Ohio, African-American children and those from lower-income families are far more likely to be hit by cars than white children in the suburbs, according to a Beacon Journal analysis, and the reason is simple: The state has created inequality in transportation to school.
At least 1,256 minors between the ages of 5 and 17 years old have been struck by a vehicle in Ohio’s eight most populous counties since 2008. Unlike students who attend suburban school districts, where parents or buses are more likely to provide safe transit to school, Daniel and many of those 1,256 students had no alternative but to walk busy streets.
The state offers no funding assistance for children who walk less than two miles — a trek that could take 40 minutes for a young child at a healthy pace and with no stopping for traffic.
In Ohio’s largest urban school districts — Akron, Canton, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland and Youngstown — students were 3.3 times more likely to be hit by a vehicle than in surrounding suburban districts.
A stunning one in 446 city students has been hit by a vehicle in the past five years, according to a Beacon Journal analysis that examined enrollment figures and crash reports from the Ohio Department of Transportation. In suburban districts, the figure was one in 1,473 students struck by a vehicle over the same time.
Akron ranks in the middle of the eight urban centers with one student struck by a vehicle for every 468 who live in the city. Statistically, that means that within 12 days of the start of the school year, an Akron-area student is hit and injured in a car-pedestrian accident.
“One is too high,” Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Township, said of such accidents. He championed a Senate committee on school safety as educators and parents reacted to a deadly school shooting in Connecticut in December.
The committee convened for two days of testimony in early March and dealt mostly with the hypothetical occurrence of a shooter entering an Ohio school.
The discussion and testimony missed a more real danger, LaRose said.
“There are a lot more things that impact school safety than these big splashy incidents that get national attention,” LaRose said of school shootings. “The walk to school is statistically more dangerous.”
During the school year, thousands of students flood city streets before 8 a.m. and again after 2 p.m. Most of them, like Elizabeth Smith, live too close to a school in a district so burdened with challenges that buses are not a financial option, and the families often don't have cars.
Smith’s mother, Patty Wright, recalls a doctor at Akron Children’s Hospital inserting his entire finger into the hole in her daughter’s leg after a plow truck dragged her along East Tallmadge Avenue in front of North High School.
The incident occurred in 2010, years after Wright let her daughter make the walk to school alone for the first time as a fifth-grader. The kids she sees from her front door on a usual school day are even younger.
“I see probably second- and third-graders walking,” Wright said. “Oh, my God, between Jennings [middle school] and North, I would say probably a good 400 or 500 kids.”
Smith said she can’t predict when her right leg might give out.
“My muscle will be messed up for the rest of my life,” she said, recalling the incident of the plow impaling her right thigh as she crossed an intersection on Tallmadge Avenue.
“I was like right across the street from the high school,” Smith said.
Eight minors, including Smith, were hit in Akron while walking to or from school in February 2010.
A day before Smith was hit, crossing guard Megan Williams, 10, was the first line of defense for scores of children at Forest Hill Elementary in North Akron. At the appropriate time, she shoved a “stop pole” into an intersection, but it did no good this time.
Xavier Fassnacht, an 11-year-old leaving school at 2:36 p.m., was the first in a pack of kids to enter the crosswalk in front of Williams as a Chevy Tahoe turned the corner.
“I just froze there. I was thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do? I just witnessed a kid get hit by a car and I have no idea what to do,” said Williams, now an eighth-grader who walks 45 minutes each day to and from Jennings.
A mapping of the car-pedestrian crash scenes shows concentrations along Tallmadge Avenue between North and Jennings schools and also along Copley Road near Buchtel High School.
The others are spread across the Akron city map, and the only common factor was that every child who was hit was within two miles of a school.
State forces cuts
About 10 percent of Ohio school districts, including Akron, have cut transportation on yellow buses — the safest form of transportation in the country — to the state minimum.
The state legislature and governors have been instrumental in placing more kids on the streets.
An annual $50 million bus purchase program was suspended in 2010 by former Gov. Ted Strickland after the economic collapse of 2008. The program helped school districts maintain their fleets.
Three years later, neither Gov. John Kasich nor the legislature has moved to reinstate the program, even as revenues this year are running $1 billion ahead of a year ago and Ohio Department of Education data show the fleet to be at a breaking point for costly repairs.
More importantly, an annual state subsidy of about $450 million for school transportation has failed to keep pace with the costs for school districts. The subsidy has increased a little more than 5 percent since 2004, while fuel costs have soared 140 percent, according to a Beacon Journal analysis.
Although the House and Senate have added money to the transportation line item as the new two-year budget passes through the legislature, they have included language that directs more of that money to private and charter schools. There is no evidence the money will benefit public school kids in general, let alone those in urban districts getting hit by cars.
“It’s a concern. What we’re talking about here is we’ve not had an increase in transportation funding. And I’d like to see us take some action in the future,” LaRose said.
Blacks and poor
Buses are the safest mode for transporting children to school, about 11 times safer then walking or riding a bike, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Summit County districts that bused fewer than a quarter of their students — Akron, Barberton and Cuyahoga Falls — accounted for 90 percent of the 69 minors hit by vehicles over the past three years.
Akron, Barberton and Cuyahoga Falls also have high poverty rates. Analysts and educators note that minority and black students living and walking in poor districts are disproportionately at risk.
Mogadore offers busing, yet transportation reports from the Ohio Department of Education suggest that — like urban Akron, Cuyahoga Falls and Barberton — students in the village tend not to ride the bus.
But the reason they ride isn't because they walk.
It’s because “most of our children are driven by their parents,” Mogadore Superintendent Christina Dinklocker said. With roughly 275 students at the high school, she counts about 20 who walk to and from the building.
That’s not the case in Akron and other urban centers, especially in the winter months, when snow blankets sidewalks before the sun rises in the morning. That’s when parents like Loretta Williams send their children off to brave the intersections, busy crosswalks and congested streets.
Her daughter, Megan, joins thousands of students who set out for Jennings, Seiberling, North, Buchtel and a network of public and private schools across Akron.
“We’re considered within the reasonable walking distance,” Loretta Williams said with a sarcastic chuckle.
It’s a walk that often reminds Megan of that snowy day near Seiberling Elementary when a fellow student was taken off his feet by a “fast, red car.”
Even Brittany Daniel, who was hit by the pickup truck and has regained the will to cross the street, remembers that day 5 years ago at the corner of Patterson and Glenwood avenues.
“I was coming home from school. It was about 3:30,” Daniel said, remembering the accident and wondering if she would have taken the bus if it stopped in front of her house.
“I would definitely go on the bus,” she figures.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.