When Florida legislators propose bills to improve the state’s hazardous walking conditions statute for students, local school district transportation directors are surveyed regarding the bill’s fiscal and logistical implications. In recent years, directors have accurately reported that improving the statute’s parameters in the ways that have been proposed would have meant that school districts would transport more students, purchase more school buses, hire more drivers, and absorb more operational overhead.
Those bills all ultimately fell short of adoption so unfortunately, deep flaws in the statute remain. The challenge to find a way to improve the criteria while being sensitive to the state budget and school district operating costs and overhead persists to this day.
In spite of the inadequacies of the statute, there are still school districts around the state that transport students around hazardous conditions at their own expense because they take the view that student transportation is part of the overall education effort. They believe that it’s their duty to eliminate potential barriers to education and ensure that students are safe during their travel to and from school. These transportation professionals have walked the streets that their students walk and they recognize better than most that some of the worst pedestrian infrastructure exists in low income areas that, not coincidentally, are also often situated near low-performing schools. They know that these students can’t afford to miss school so they do what they can to keep them in class.
These transportation leaders endeavor to create an environment that facilitates students’ preparation for a day of learning and development. They know the current hazardous walking conditions criteria, understand its shortcomings well, and look forward to the day when the statute does what it says it does: identify hazardous walking conditions and safeguard students from them. They recognize that the statute not only fails to do that, it does little to encourage infrastructure development in their community. They see the statute itself as a hazard to students that they cannot abide in good conscience.
They know what safe streets look like because they’re transportation professionals. As professionals, they’re familiar with the Complete Streets criteria. They know what Safe Routes to School says about safe walking conditions and best practices, and its concerns about cognition among young people around traffic. They’re acquainted with Florida Department of Transportation’s Greenbook that describes the standards and cautions that pertain to pedestrian facilities. They are aware of the the many U. S. Department of Transportation National Highway Safety Administration studies and publications. They know students and they know what their students’ parents know: that when a condition is hazardous that the statute says isn’t hazardous there is something wrong with the criteria and it needs to be fixed.
They would never view the responsibility of transporting children to and from school as a bitter task where the financial and logistical burden becomes an excuse to turn a blind eye to student safety. They would never take cover behind the exorbitant criteria and language in the statute in order to deny children transportation service and indifferently advise parents that their children are ineligible for transportation service as if they’re powerless to take the initiative to protect children from hazards. They would certainly never allow themselves to become so cynical and detached from the experiences of parents and children that they delight in their cleverness in denying transportation service to their “ineligible” students. They would never disingenuously oppose commonsense proposals without offering their own just so they can continue to tell parents that the reason their children don’t qualify for transportation service around hazardous conditions is because their legislators won’t fix the law.
Their school boards, superintendents, and parents depend on their student transportation leaders to exercise moral courage and to leverage their knowledge and expertise to do the right thing. Still, though, it’s wrong for the state to leave it to them to look after the safety of students alone when it come to hazardous walking conditions for students. It’s time for the state of Florida to ensure that its hazardous walking conditions statute adequately safeguards students.
This session, the Florida legislature will consider House Bill 229, the Safe Walkways to School Act, which offers a dramatic improvement to Florida’s hazardous walking conditions statute. There is no reason that the bill shouldn’t appeal to that true student transportation professional. It gives school district transportation directors the opportunity to do what they’re there to do: see to the safety of district students as they make their way to and from school each day. If adopted, the bill will turn the responsibility for identifying conditions that pose hazards to minor children to the transportation infrastructure professionals at the Florida Department of Transportation rather than leave the criteria stagnating in the current statute. The bill also provides local school districts the discretion to transport these students to the extent that their resources allow by removing all mandates that are currently in the statute.
This is a good bill, and it needs to be adopted by the state legislature.