Justice for the Little People

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Justice for the Little People

“I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”

― Charles Dickens

So I’m a mom. I’ve lived in the same house in my neighborhood for 12 years. The school my kids go to is within walking distance. I’ve been a PTA officer, communications chair, president and school volunteer. I consider myself a child advocate and an active citizen. Just a head’s up: I am not a PTA psycho. Promise.

For the past seven years, at least, I have been highly interested in getting our neighborhood’s school zone reduced speed lights reinstalled.

They were taken away in 1990 or thereabouts. When we had them, the main road was a typical 2-lane, 2-way, 35mph suburban street. We had the school on one side and a shopping center on the other. We had neighborhoods on one side and neighborhoods on the other side. Crossing the street was no big deal.

In 1990 or thereabouts, Virginia Department of Transportation widened the road to what it is now: a 3.2 mile long, 6-8 lane median-stripped 40mph (60mph at times) suburban secondary artery. It has flouted our neighborhood’s initial design: a walking community. Our neighborhood was established about 11 years before this roadway was irretrievably altered. All in the interest of the Chamber of Commerce and traffic gods.

Since the changes: About 32,000 cars traverse our street daily. During a 6-month period 408 speeding tickets were written averaging 57.9 mph. The majority of offenders: soccer moms, local people, not commuters. I can’t explain why this is, but all I know is that my kids’ school lost their speed zone. Drivers regularly careen past this school and shopping center without a care in the world.

My fight to reinstate this speed system officially began on paper and in practice when I was PTA president in 2009. I was not alone; I joined a community group to bring awareness to the speeders on our street. I was appointed to a task force to research, understand and recommend changes to bring safety to pedestrians and motorists on this speedway. Many other members of my community raised their voices in great concern for this situation.

Who were the people who took away the signs? VDOT.

Who where the people who didn’t put back the signs? Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) and its Office of Safety and Security (OSS).

As PTA officers, we tried to bridge with this group, work toward a common goal, bang a louder drum. They shut us down and all but publicly mocked us when we appealed to them for stronger speed enforcement.

What did FCPS OSS say?: Don’t cross the street.

Tell me how this makes sense: you increase the speed, the danger, the curve and the reduce the line of sight of a massive road in front of a school with a shopping center on the opposite side, and you ARGUE that it’s safer. In fact it’s SO safe, you don’t see a need to reinstate the signs because now, as FCPS OSS, you’ve created a better and SMARTER way to transport the children to the school that used to be within a safe walking distance: YOU BUS THEM. These kids live literally… 3/10 of a mile and YOU BUS THEM. You shut down my neighborhood, you restrict my foot traffic and mobility, you decrease my personal safety and you BUS our kids to school and  THEN… THEN you bitchandmoan when we try to stand up for ourselves.

“Parental prerogative,” Mr. OSS said, about a hundred times. “I’m not ever going to advocate for your parents to cross that road… it’s not safe… It’s their parental prerogative…” he would say, sort of singing it… “pah-ren-tallll pre-rog-ah-tivvve…” with everything but the Jazz Hands to flourish the ditty.

So, YES: by all means DON’T do anything about the speeding when you KNOW parents are going to take their own lives and the lives of their toddler, stroller’d, baby bjorned children into their own “prerogative” hands and cross that street during the very times of day when a proven, familiar, and cheap speed-reducing intervention would be MOST effective. Dicks.

You stupid, idiotic, moronic dicks. Blame it on the parents. NnnnNNnnNnNnnnn.

The useless fight continued; FCPS held all the cards. They really did. And our school board rep at the time? Useless. “Regulations stipulate…” We asked, “what about a review on a case-by-case basis…?” DENIED.

But What Ho… What Madness is This?

Progress? 

Finally in January 2010, the task force was created and our then-current school board rep was a lame duck, and thus entirely uninterested in helping us. What can I say? Some people love their red tape. In November 2011, we voted in a new school board member. She was younger, she had kids in the school system and she cared. After more than a few conference calls with her I got advice, an ear and an advocate. After a few more task force meetings, we got some traction with the County supervisors. “It’s a budget concern… we want to do this, we just don’t have the money…” Uhhh… we’re like the 4th? richest county in the nation… I think we can find $65,000 to cover the lights. 

In February 2012, there was a public >wink-wink< land use meeting that I was >wink-wink< encouraged to attend and present content in a very >wink-wink< specific way because our school was suddenly moved up the list on the renovations schedule. I let the money thing go, other than reminding everyone that $65,000 was about .03% of the County’s $16.6 million renovation budget for our school. That meeting led to a hearing a few months later that I was also >wink-wink< encouraged to attend.

I made a power point presentation, had index cards, put on regular clothes and even brushed my hair and in April 2012, I testified at a public hearing before the Fairfax County Planning Commission, citing all my facts, as I had in meetings before, in conference calls before, with the school board, the task force, the board of supervisor member, the PTA, the cats and my dog. I did this a lot. I could recite this stuff in my sleep and I probably did.

The night of that hearing, I was a nervous wreck but totally confident too because I knew what I was doing was right and good and just and smart and SAFE.

All 14 of the commissioners were familiar with the road and many of them asked, “What? There isn’t a light there now??” Sheepishly I said, “No.” And not sheepishly I said, “And we want it back. VDOT took it away and FCPS didn’t reinstate it. Someone, maybe some of you back in the 80s voted to change our road, made it more dangerous and took away a safety precaution.” I think I even lightly pounded a fist for emphasis.

Here I am… making our case. This hearing lasted until 12am.

Thus at that hearing my opportunities to fight the good fight had ended. It was in the hands of the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. They had a few more meetings and as I understand it, FCPS OSS was quite stubborn. Some time between April and October, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, at the recommendation of our guy Braddock Supervisor John Cook (who will always have a vote from me, unless he pulls a Patreaus or something), approved the provision: Condition 11, which stated that for our school’s renovation to go forward the new speed reduction light system HAD to be installed. If FCPS wanted its renovation, they had to give us our light.

A few weeks ago, I saw signs of life: drilling and street slicing on the day I went on a field trip, the one with the zip line, with my son. Then today, I saw this:

This. This is what took so long to get. This is the west-bound pair of school zone speed reduction lights known in the industry as “Wink-o-Matics” – they save lives. On a day like today, rainy, overcast and bleak the cars would go by at 50mph easy. Those buses in front of the school are waiting to transport special needs students.

I didn’t fight this fight for me. I didn’t go after the system for some crazy notion of glory and honor. I did this because it made sense. Because little kids should see that their government cares about them and that their school will receive the SAME treatment other schools receive. I did it because we live in freakin’ Fairfax County – 12 miles from the Pentagon; 22 miles from the WHITE HOUSE and 26 miles from the US Capitol… This?? This is democracy?!

In the end, I did it also to become a giant craw in the OSS. There is a list of other local people whose names I don’t have permission to divulge so I won’t, but they were instrumental as well in this fight. The thing is, I’ll go ahead and say this because it’s true: I was in the fight until the end. After the hearing in April, I took more pictures, presented on more conference calls and exchanged at least another 30 emails about this issue until my involvement was moot. I didn’t give up. Even if we’d lost this time, I wouldn’t have given up.

The installation of these lights are more than a good idea. They say to the 32,000 commuters: we live here. They say ‘community’ and ‘families’ and ‘safety’ and ‘pay attention’ and ‘school’ and ‘kids’ and ‘slow down.’

To the FCPS OSS team, they say, “UP YOURS.”

Thank you.

PS: UPDATE 12/4/12:

The Wink-O-Matic lights outside my children’s school went fully operational today for the first time in probably 20 years. This is something I thought I’d never see happen because OSS fought this campaign so fiercely, as though it were some personal persecution waged against them. This morning: the yellow beacons of justice alternated causing ephemeral driver mindfulness, brake lights to illuminate and traffic to slow to a reasonable pace, 25 mph for just about 100 yards, making me feel as though change is possible and that years of hard work, respectful, focused, patient persistence and good old-fashioned drum-banging can beat the system. I learned that when you show up, you show you care. Thank you Office of Braddock Supervisor John C. Cook for all your support. You done good, sir. I’ll never forget it.

26 responses »

    • hey, thanks, Felicity! yeah – i just heard from another mom I know and she started to get this done 18 years ago. i don’t understand the county. at first, i was convinced it was some all-white, old-man, back room business deal because of the road widening, but to hear the planning commissioners talk about it… and some of those commissioners were quite senior. one looked like Mr. Monopoly w/o the monocle (but i really liked him and i didn’t want to sorta pick on him in the post) was the most vocal about having it reinstated.

      “Persistence overcomes resistance” said a good friend of mine. 🙂

      thanks for the kudos. -M

      • How unfortunate that the school never mentioned it…………I am sure they want the parents of those school children to think it was an action through the school/principal; most not involved will never know it was the power of a few people and YOU…………………but all of us here do!

        What a wonderful example you are setting for your “Things”! Maybe I should go hang a sign on those blink o matics that says “Thanks Molly and John”!

        You rock Molly!! Taking names and kicking butt; hehehe

    • HA! yes… i guess. you are too kind. this was a very long effort and i’m thrilled it’s over, but yeah – if it went the other way, i’d still be at it. when i think about it, and look at those lights, i sorta get jazzed: i did that. i made that happen. i stayed the longest and banged the drum the loudest and i didn’t give up. that matters. that matters a lot. i did alright. i’ll take it. 🙂

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