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In Wake of Tragic Accident Near Hansen School, Stoughton Officials Look to Address Safety Concerns

Shayla Lutz, 3, of Stoughton, died following a tragic accident on Sept. 14 when she was struck by a box truck in front of the Hansen School. In looking to address safety concerns, adding a crossing guard would not be an adequate solution, officials say.

Town officials have been looking into what can be done to address safety concerns following the tragic death of Shayla Lutz, a three-year-old Stoughton girl who was struck by a box truck in front of the Hansen Elementary School on Central St. in Stoughton the afternoon of Sept. 14.

Stoughton Police Chief Paul Shastany and Executive Officer Robert Devine appeared at a Hansen School PTO meeting Monday night; a team of engineers was at the Hansen School on Tuesday to observe the dismissal process from start to finish; and a meeting with town officials (not open to the public) has been organized by Interim Town Manager Joseph Feaster for this week to further examine this issue, School Committee Chair Deborah Sovinee said.

“When the principal, [Faye Polillio], mentioned the upcoming meeting both the Chief and I offered to attend and answer parent questions," Devine said.

“People were generally concerned about the safety of several streets in town,” he continued. “We explained that the department heads [of the DPW, School Department and Police] are working together. We hope through a collaborative effort, we can increase the safety.”

Unfortunately, there is no simple fix to the safety concerns, town officials say.

"When something as horrific as this happens, people want to do something. There are those who want to help. All of us want to ensure that such a thing as this never happens again. In our haste to achieve that end, we must be careful not to do something out of deep sadness and anger, that might actually make things worse," School Committee Chair Deborah Sovinee wrote in an email to Stoughton Patch.

An example of this is the call to add a crossing guard in the vicinity of where the accident took place, according to Sovinee.

"With all good intentions, there have been some people who have been advocating for a crossing guard at the crosswalk located at West and Central in front of the Hansen School,"  Sovinee wrote. "The School Committee has chosen to allow the administration to begin the research and fact finding that could lead to a safe solution for this area."

She said "a crossing guard at that location would not be safe."

Sovinee wrote:

The person would be in significant personal danger, and would draw people into an intersection, now rarely used, which would put them in danger as well. The guard could not be seen by oncoming traffic until they were standing in the middle of a lane. The presence of a crossing guard would encourage people to cross at a location where we believe it is best to discourage such acrossing.

There is a procedure for vetting locations for crossing guards designed by traffic engineers, used by the district, and by that criteria, this location, assessed before, and now again, is unsafe by several different measures. Once a person becomes acquainted with the facts, they see that placing a guard there is to actively invite a second disaster.

Only three houses are located in a place which would require their crossing in this area to reach the Hansen School. All of the families in those houses have been individually taken care of so that none of those children will have to walk to school at all. This will remove the danger until the day that the road is altered in some way to make it more safe.

In a follow-up email, Sovinee wrote that Shastany and Devine "presented the facts with enough detail" at their Monday night meeting with Hansen School PTO members "that it was clear this was a tragic accident that was no one's fault. Chief Shastany explained that a crossing guard might have just the opposite effect that they want, and told them that many parts of Stoughton were being examined for safety issues."

She continued, "Chief Shastany told them that there were many tickets given out on Central Street this year, and the police do monitor for speed. The Chief and Lt. Devine explained that parent driving behavior is a concern at all schools."

Chief Shastany said that it is important not to shoot first and aim later. "We want to do something the right way," he said.

There are many factors that go into deciding whether or not to place a crossing guard (or a crosswalk) at a certain location, according to the Chief, including the traffic volume of the road, the of the speed cars on the road, the site distance of the crossing area, etc. All of these factors contribute to if there are safe conditions for students to cross, as a crosswalk likely increases the number of pedestrians crossing at that point.

Shastany also added a "gentle reminder" that parents picking up and dropping off at the schools have an obligation to hang up their phones and pay full attention to the students in the area.

School Committee member Dr. Erdem Ural wanted to see a more expedient response to the accident.

While acknowledging that "deciding what the appropriate measures are [for improving safety], and then implementing them properly will take time," in a letter sent to town officials, Dr. Ural urged that "in the mean time, we must create interim stopgap measures, in order to protect our residents and our precious children."

"I know you were all shaken by the horrible accident resulting in the death of an innocent 3-year-old child in front of the Hansen School on September 14, 2012. Now that we all have heightened awareness of the dangerous conditions in front of the Hansen School, it is incumbent upon us to implement appropriate protection measures in a timely manner," Dr. Ural wrote.

According to the letter and string of email correspondence Dr. Ural sent to Shastany, Feaster, Stoughton Selectmen, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marguerite Rizzi and the School Committee, he requested that his colleagues on the School Committee have an emergency meeting following the accident, but the request was not met.

"I tried very hard to get the School Committee to have an emergency meeting to discuss the accident and interim protections. Unfortunately, I was unable to get support from any of my esteemed colleagues to schedule an emergency meeting," Ural wrote.

Instead, the School Committee will meet Wednesday evening, Sept. 26 for a regularly scheduled meeting (delayed a day in observance of Yom Kippur). Agenda items for the meeting include a discussion of the Central St. accident and a review of safety procedures.

In response to Dr. Ural's request, Sovinee, according to email records, wrote: "I want to stress that this is not a school issue, it is a public safety issue and we are seeking more information. To have a public meeting at this juncture would not only be premature, it would be ill-advised. We would be doing a disservice to all of the people that we serve by letting our emotions cloud clear thinking and sound planning."

The schools are working collaboratively with other town departments, like the Police Department, to address safety concerns.

In an email to Stoughton Patch, Sovinee wrote, "The school committee cannot address the matter of road construction, alteration, signage, markings and lighting. These issues are under the authority of law enforcement, public works, and in the case of Route 27, the state. Interim Town Manager Joseph Feaster has given highest priority to pulling together a working group of all authorities required to effect change at this intersection. A meeting is planned for this week. All of the relevant data will be examined and analyzed by those who have the expertise to do something about it. An emergency meeting of the School Committee would have achieved none of this."

Sovinee continued, "The school committee and the school district administration are steadfastly committed to the safety of our students. Stoughton is a town with a tremendous amount of traffic, and many children using the streets to get to school. We implore everyone to think about their driving habits, drive more slowly, follow the principals’ instructions in school zones, put down their cell phones and create a safer environment for all pedestrians.

"While neither speed nor phone use had a role in this accident, it is clear to us watching the arrival and [dismissals] at all of our schools, that these behaviors place students at risk every single day. If anything good can come from this horrible accident, we hope that it is that all drivers take more responsibility for the safety of every child."

As safety concerns continue to be addressed, the Stoughton community has rallied behind the Lutz family, helping to establish a trust fund and holding a candlelight vigil on Sept. 21. A large collection of stuffed animals have been placed around the crosswalk sign in front of the Hansen School on Central St., near where Shayla was hit.

Counselors and staff from the Schools, State Police and Stoughton Youth Commission were made available to the Hansen Community in the days following the accident.

"We wish to thank our superlative counseling staff, some of whom gave up their day off, to assist at the Hansen School. We wish to thank the Stoughton Youth Commission for offering their services to all members of the community," Sovinee wrote. "We wish to thank the Stoughton Police Chief Paul Shastany and his whole department for the assistance they have provided. Their close work with us has been invaluable, compassionate and effective."

"Our deepest condolences go out to the Lutz family as a result of the tragic death of their daughter, Shayla," Sovinee wrote. "The Stoughton School community will continue to support them as the days ahead unfold. The staff at the Hansen School is deeply committed to ensuring that the Lutz children get all of the help they need while getting the best possible education, not just today, but over the next several years."

***

Christine Iacobucci contributed reporting.

Beth Barrett September 26, 2012 at 01:45 PM
How about the dozen plus cars parked in a "no parking zones" at the Hansen school central street side during dismissal ? They are clearly violating dismissal process and preventing emergency vehicles from responding to a possible emergency. Why aren't safety officials issuing tickets there ?
Cheryl M September 26, 2012 at 02:16 PM
If police and other town officials/reps are saying the crosswalk at West & Central is so dangerous that they cannot place a crossing guard there, why not remove the crosswalk altogether? Why is that our only crosswalk within the Hansen school zone? I appreciate the fact that Hansen families who live across from the school on Island Street have now been given bus transportation, but what about the OMS and SHS students who cross at West & Central? I understand it takes time to put a plan into action but what else can be done in the interim to make that area safer?
Cheryl M September 26, 2012 at 02:34 PM
Agreed. And the same could be said about OMS. So many parents park in front of clearly marked NO PARKING signs, drawing students to cross all over Cushing St. darting in and out of cars. Those who park there also make it nearly impossible for 2 lanes of traffic to pass and definitely would impede emergency vehicles from passing.
Maureen September 26, 2012 at 02:36 PM
There is still no crossing guard at the school. I have lived on West Street for 14 years, and there has never been a crossing guard. There is still no crossing guard at the Hansen School after this tragedy!
Cheryl M September 26, 2012 at 02:48 PM
They are saying it would be too dangerous to place one there, even though some town engineer at some point thought it was safe to put a crosswalk in its current position at West & Central. If it is too dangerous to put a crossing guard in that crosswalk, why does that crosswalk exist? It was obviously poorly planned if it is considered too dangerous for a crossing guard to be stationed there, yet we will still have OMS/SHS students and other pedestrians crossing there. I hope Thursday's meeting results in a safe interim solution while we await the long term solution. The fact that the police and town admit that this crosswalk is a hazard and that it has forever been our only crosswalk at the Hansen is just baffling!
Just Saying September 26, 2012 at 02:57 PM
The school commitee can and should address the issue of the Stoughton "bus policy". That IS a school department department issue and it absolutely needs to be addressed. While it is great that they made "individual arrangements" with the three families that need to cross at Central & West Street, it does nothing to address the safety needs of many other families. There are many other areas, well within the 2 mile radius of schools, that are just not safe for children to be walking on. West St. for example has NO SIDEWALKS from Plain St., to Chemung. All families living on West St. or needing to use West St. should have a bus made available to them also. There are many other streets and roads with similar conditions, ie no sidewalks, heavy traffic, blind curves, no crossing guards. The school department & the school commitee need to make buses available to all the students within the 2 mile radius of the school that have inadaquate walking routes to school.
Margie September 26, 2012 at 09:55 PM
Why don't you put a traffic light at the crosswalk? The light can be blinking yellow except during school hours. There can be a crosswalk traffic signal that is triggered by a push of a button to turn it to a red light. The frequency will need to be studied to not totally disrupt traffic since you would not want the light turning red every 30 seconds during peak school times. This will slow down the traffic and help the traffic flow at the intersection of Tosca Drive etc. that just has stop signs. By the way, its no easy feat to take a left out of that road.
Teatoteler September 26, 2012 at 11:56 PM
Totally agree with Cheryl M. The dangerous crosswalk needs to be taken out as soon as possible.
Nancy September 27, 2012 at 12:30 AM
A pedestrian light makes perfect sense especially where this is a major route in a school zone... No brainer
michd September 27, 2012 at 01:20 AM
Since it's been deemed dangerous, why was it placed there in the first place? It's a no brainer that it's a dangerous spot when there are vehicles coming and going from every direction.
DJ September 27, 2012 at 02:49 AM
ChaChing.... I agree that seems to be the obvious and best solution. I seem to recall a lot of discussion around the issue of traffic signals as a mitigation plan when the 40B development across from the school was on the table. Possibly the town hasn't moved on lights because they expect development to pick up the costs in the near future, but if that is the reasoning, it may be rational, but disturbing given the circumstances.
Cathy September 27, 2012 at 05:28 PM
As a former Stoughton homeowner, all I can say to the parents is, "please DO NOT" entrust the safety of your children to the town planners and committees. Keep this issue in the forefront or they will eventually bury it. Do not let them keep giving you excuses as to why these things take so long! Insist that they act now and keep the media involved when they choose to ignore your concerns.

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