Parents push for traffic safety around schools

Escondido Elementary School, 890 Escondido Road Stanford. Palo Alto Unified School District photo.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Parents at Escondido Elementary School packed the community meeting room at Palo Alto City Hall yesterday to demand the city and school district address what they say is a dangerous and chaotic environment for kids walking and biking to school every day.

The parents are fired up after a 12-year-old student, Gibson Oliveira, was hit by a car after school on Sept. 8 at the intersection of Stanford Avenue and Escondido Road.

One of the problems at this intersection is that the traffic lights are inconsistent, Gibson’s parents said. 

In the morning, all of the street lights turn red and crosswalks turn green at once, allowing pedestrians to cross in all directions.

The same all-way traffic stop doesn’t happen in the afternoon, so Gibson mistakenly thought he could go when just one of the crosswalks had turned green.

“If there had been a crossing guard there to say, ‘Hey buddy it’s not your turn,’ he would’ve understood that,” his mother Melissa Oliveira said.

The boy was “rag-dolled” 10 feet across the street, and his helmet saved his life, Gibson said.

His survival was a miracle, not only for their family, but also for the city and school district because they don’t have blood on their hands, she said.

“Escondido, candidly and transparently, has been chaos for many years,” she said.

Escondido is the largest elementary in Palo Alto with 457 students. The school has the district’s largest share of Latino students, English learners and Stanford families, Oliveira said.

Many of the parents lack a voice because they don’t speak English or understand how to navigate government meetings, and they couldn’t skip work to attend yesterday’s City-School Liaison Committee meeting, she said. And Stanford families often turn over at higher rates than other students.

“We’re here to give those parents a voice,” Oliveira said, speaking on behalf of five other parents.

Parent Sampson Shen said he accidentally walked onto Stanford Avenue too, thinking both crosswalks were green.

“I’ve always said in the past that this intersection was an accident waiting to happen,” he said.

Another issue is that Escondido doesn’t unlock its gates until 7:50 a.m., 20 minutes before school starts.

The front of campus on Escondido Road is under construction, so kids crowd a gate on Stanford Avenue until they can get in.

“It is inconceivable to have your main entrance for all students on an artery,” Oliveira said.

Parent Kara Baker said gates should be opened all around the campus, and Stanford Avenue gate should be opened earlier so students don’t have to wait.

Parent Ali Boehm said she was “shocked” that a police officer wan’t at the intersection the Monday after the Friday accident.

“Just to make us feel better, just for optics … We need somebody at the intersection protecting our kids now. It is not OK what is going on,” she said.

Sibyl Diver, an Escondido parent and teacher at Stanford, said a crossing guard should be out there before Stanford classes start next week.

“We’re dealing with a large set of folks who are moving to campus yesterday, who didn’t know that there are stop signs at certain places, who don’t even know there’s a school there. And a lot of the drivers are teenagers who are distracted,” she said.

City Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi encouraged parents to attend a traffic safety meeting next week, when officials from the city, school district and Safe Routes To School program will talk about Escondido.

The meeting will be on Sept. 28 at 10 a.m. at a location by Escondido, followed by an evening meeting on Oct. 12, Kamhi said.

Crossing guards

The city is doing a study to see if a crossing guard is warranted at the intersection, he said.

The city deploys crossing guards based on how many people and cars use a crossing, and what kind of intersection it is. Crossings with a traffic light have a higher threshold.

Council members and school board members pushed their respective employees to work quickly.

“The first thought that goes into my head is,‘Why can’t we put a crossing guard out there now?’” board member Shounak Dharap said.

“We need to make sure that we’re pushing aside any bureaucratic barriers that might normally exist,” Councilman Pat Burt said.

City Manager Ed Shikada said the city’s contractor doesn’t necessarily have crossing guards who are available to work, but the police department is looking into the contract.

Carolyn Chow, chief business officer for the district, said the school could open the gates earlier, but it will be hard to find someone to supervise the kids every morning.

Board member Todd Collins said parent volunteers could monitor the intersection in the meantime.

Collins became involved with school business partly because of Track Watch, an effort to have parent volunteers sit by the train tracks and make sure nobody jumped in front of a train.

Parents signed up in shifts, and that went on for about a year-and-a-half before the city hired security guards, Collins said.

“Nothing stops you guys from organizing to address this problem directly,” he said.

Burt said he doesn’t think parents would need to volunteer as a long this time. He said he hopes the city could find a short-term solution in a matter of weeks.