Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011 | 2 a.m.
At 3:26 p.m., the gates open and hundreds of little kids eagerly flee their classrooms and run toward the streets around William V. Wright Elementary School.
But these aren’t friendly neighborhood streets. They’re filled with impatient drivers who often disregard traffic laws, putting those kids in danger.
And most of those drivers are the children’s parents.
Fred Peters, whose granddaughter is a second-grader at the school, stands on a corner watching the mess. He hasn’t given up on his self-appointed mission to change this daily ritual — even though it sometimes feels impossible.
“This is absolutely insane,” he said as three rows of cars pile up outside the school’s back gate.
“That crosswalk right now is a danger zone,” Peters said, pointing to the edge of a T-intersection, where parents lead their children in every direction, ignoring the white lines painted on the road.
A nearby street is clearly marked as a no-parking zone, but more than 100 cars are lined up there anyway while the drivers retrieve their children.
At the intersection, a truck stuck behind a small car blares its horn for minutes before the driver of the car gets out and begins yelling. The driver of the truck gets out also, but two dads force him back into the vehicle before the argument comes to blows.
The cars that aren’t parked or stuck in the pileup are maneuvering around the narrow street any way they can, even if it requires an unsafe U-turn or a stop in the middle of a crosswalk or driveway. Parents and students walk through the mess of cars without regard for crosswalks or anything else.
“The people are just amazing. It’s just blatant disregard for courtesy,” Peters said. “And it’s not the kids, it’s the parents.”
On the other side of the school grounds, Principal Carol Erbach stands at a gate and says goodbye as students stream into the parking lot.
Her eyes stay on some of the children longer than others — those accompanied by a parent get a glance, while those running alone toward the cars are watched all the way down the sidewalk.
A few minutes later, a father struggles to manage his walking son while he pushes another child in a stroller across Bob Fisk Avenue — outside the crosswalk. An SUV stops for the family but the driver of the truck stuck behind blares his horn and yells at the other driver.
The traffic problems at Wright are not unique and other schools have similar issues, Peters and Erbach admit. But it’s so bad here even the Clark County School District employee charged with getting kids to walk or bike admits she would drive her kids if they went to Wright.
“You can‘t encourage those 1,000 kids who go to this school to walk, because it isn’t safe,” said Cheryl Wagner, the Safe Routes to School coordinator.
Wright is the district’s largest elementary school — at 1,125 students, it’s bigger than nine urban middle schools.
Just 90 of the students ride a bus, about 25 go to after-school programs and about 100 walk or ride a bike. The rest — more than 900 of them — come in a car, even though they all live within 2 miles of the school.
The streets around the 6-year-old school were poorly planned, with just one narrow road circling it and only two small connections to the larger arterial roads nearby. The main road to the school doesn’t even have sidewalks on one side.
The result is 20 minutes of gridlock every day.
Erbach used to go to the back of the school to direct traffic and help kids cross the street. Then she found out employees aren’t allowed to leave school grounds for liability reasons.
Despite having more than 1,100 sets of parents, Peters is the only person she’s been able to recruit for help with traffic control.
Parents will get there early to get a good parking spot, Erbach said. “They sit out there in the car, but they won’t come and help the kids cross the street for a few minutes. That’s frustrating.”
But not Fred Peters. He goes around the school and sets up cones and signs — although some of them have been run over and destroyed. Most days he then goes to the back of the school and directs traffic.
He asked Metro Police for training as a volunteer crossing guard, but the department will only come if there are at least 10 volunteers. Peters couldn’t get anyone else to join him.
The 58-year-old grew up near downtown Las Vegas. He served in the Marines for 14 years, some of them in Vietnam.
He’s tried getting help from his elected officials, Clark County, the School District, Metro Police, School District Police and everyone else he can think of, but he hasn’t gotten much of a response.
He admits that being “tenacious” and “not patient” might be why some of his repeated phone calls and emails go unanswered.
“Fred is persistent and if he feels like he has run into a block wall then he’ll find a different way to approach it,” Erbach said. “Some people might take offense to that … but he’s doing it for the right reasons.”
After the Marines, Peters worked in construction until he could retire and spend his time traveling.
“I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be here. I want to be retired,” he said while looking over the school parking lot. “We worked all our lives to be in this position, but I just can’t turn my back on this.”
His greatest fear isn’t just that a car will hit a child near the school — it’s that his granddaughter will witness the accident.
“I don’t want to wait until we see somebody get run over or killed before we do something,” he said. “I’ve lived in Vegas my whole life and it seems like that’s the only way to get attention for an intersection. I don’t want my grandbaby to have to see that.
“Why wait for bad thing to happen if we don’t have to?”