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."
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.