WEST CALDWELL, NJ — In addition to two parents who attended Monday’s Caldwell-West Caldwell Board of Education to address recent issues involving their 7-year-old son, a group of approximately 35 parents also attended the meeting to question the district’s commitment to the safety of the children who must cross heavily traveled roads without the benefit of a school crossing guard or the provision of declaring the route “hazardous” and providing transportation.

Lorraine Caputo, who began the dialogue in June, has been advocating for the school board to officially declare the area of Passaic and Bloomfield Avenues—the route her son and other students who live nearby utilize to get to and from school—as “a hazardous route.”

Noting that her family lives 1.9 miles away from Grover Cleveland Middle School, Caputo said her son must walk along county roads that are designated truck routes, have a posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour, do note have sidewalks in some areas and have no shoulders or crossing guards.

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She also said the traffic light at the 16-lane intersection of Passaic and Bloomfield Avenues does not include a “pedestrian light” and only presents a “green” light for traffic to resume, which she said does not allow for safe and secured passage for pedestrians.

After contacting Eyewitness News earlier this month, reporter Nina Pineda interviewed West Caldwell Mayor Joseph Tempesta and the township’s acting police chief, Dennis Capriglione, on the subject. Tempesta stated during the interview that the intersection was “absolutely dangerous” but had not been contacted by the district about these concerns.

“I would not want my children to walk that route, and if the school district contacts me—which they have not—I would tell the superintendent I think it is dangerous,” said Capriglione.

As district policy states that if a bus has empty seats, a lottery can be offered for the empty seats at the parent’s expense, Caputo mentioned that she received a quote from Heinegg that would allow for her son to ride the bus at a cost of either $4 or $5 per trip for a total of $1600 for the school year.

The superintendent reiterated during Monday’s meeting that he would help to facilitate carpools or offer subscription busing as defined by policy.

He also noted that he distributed a survey to a select group of parents in September in an attempt to garner data on how many students are in a typical car pool, whether parents would be willing to pay for subscription busing, how many students walk to school and the number of parents who drive their children to school. Heinegg said he received limited feedback, but intends to survey a larger group in the coming months.

Resident Chris Elko, who is running for a seat on the board, suggested providing an opportunity for the public to submit questions to be included in the next survey in addition to the administration’s. Heinegg responded that he would be willing to take suggestions and encouraged community members to contact him.

When Elko requested a timeline for action items to be addressed so that the public has some idea as to how and when the board would proceed with this item, Heinegg stated that it could take six months to a year to determine a hazardous bus route.

Parent Stephanie Swanson suggested bringing Essex County into the discussion, as main roads like Passaic and Bloomfield Avenues and Clinton Road are all owned and maintained by the county. She expressed that the county could provide some assistance, particularly by implementing and changing the current traffic device to allow for a “pedestrian crossing sign.”

“In general, families who live within two miles of the school are responsible for getting their children to and from school,” said Heinegg. “In cases such as this, when a parent requests school bus transportation, we try to get a sense of the issue by surveying parents and then seeing what options may be available. As mentioned, that sometimes means arranging subscription busing, facilitating the creation of carpools, etc.   

“In some cases, we are also able to offer an available seat on a current bus route.  We have done so in this situation, offering a seat to this family and to other families. There is a cost of approximately $4 per ride, though the district will take financial hardship into consideration.”

As defined by New Jersey statute, adoption of policy regarding transportation of students who walk along hazardous routes (in relevant part) states the following:

“A school district that provides courtesy busing services shall adopt a policy regarding the transportation of students who must walk to and from school along hazardous routes. The policy shall include a list of hazardous routes in the district requiring the courtesy busing of students and the criteria used in designating the hazardous routes.

“In adopting its policy, the school district may consider, but shall not be limited to, the following criteria:

(1) Population density;

(2) Traffic volume;

(3) Average vehicle velocity;

(4) Existence or absence of sufficient sidewalk space;  

(5) Roads and highways that are winding or have blind curves;

(6) Roads and highways with steep inclines and declines;

(7) Drop-offs that are in close proximity to a sidewalk;

(8) Bridges or overpasses that must be crossed to reach the school;

(9) Train tracks or trestles that must be crossed to reach the school; and

(10) Busy roads or highways that must be crossed to reach the school.”

It also states that “a school district shall work in conjunction with municipal officials in determining the criteria necessary for the designation of a hazardous route.”

State guidelines require all public school districts to provide transportation to elementary school children who live more than two miles away from school and to provide busing to secondary-aged students who live more than two-and-a-half miles from school.

The policy also states that the board may decide to “enter into a contract to provide transportation to and from school for public and nonpublic school pupils less than remote from their school with the parent or legal guardian paying costs in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:39-1.3.”

“Pupils will not be excluded from receiving these transportation services if it is determined the parent/legal guardian cannot pay the cost in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:39-1.4,” it states. “Such transportation shall be provided in accordance with Policy and Regulation No. 8611, Subscription Busing.”

The board of education is required to approve all bus routes by Sept. 15 of each school year. According to the district policy, bus routes for all non-remote pupils who must walk to and from school along hazardous routes will be designated.

The board will consider, but is not limited to, the criteria outlined in the state policy for determining ‘Hazardous Routes.’”

As she left the meeting, Caputo said she was “disappointed at the response given by Dr. Heinegg and Thomas Lambe.”

“Over 70 percent of people who turned in the survey sent out by Heinegg said they would be interested in a bus if one were available,” she said. “None of us are asking for a handout or feel entitled to a bus for our children; but we are asking them to realize there are hazardous roads in the district especially west of Passaic Ave. and to do something about that.”

Caputo added that “this goes beyond just one family” because it “affects the entire community.”

“It is now October and I'm still waiting for something to be done—not just for me but for everyone who is concerned about the roads getting to and from school,” she said. “You can't expect to put a Band-Aid on this. You can't throw a bone to one person at a time.

“I want the board to do the right thing and honor their transportation policy, which states bus routes for all non-remote pupils who must walk to and from school along hazardous routes will be designated."

Although Heinegg clarified that he speaks for the board as the district’s superintendent, several parents still questioned why there was no response from board members. Board member Julianne Grosso, who was the only member to speak directly to the parents, thanked them for attending the meeting.

“The board has heard you and we care and are listening,” she said.

In other news, Jason and Jennifer Imperial, parents of a 7-year-old classified student, also attended Monday’s meeting to bring attention to the circumstances of their son’s transfer to Wilson Elementary School from his home school, Jefferson Elementary School.

They questioned the usage of restraints being used on their son without their consent or knowledge and whether the staff was trained to correctly utilize the restraints in the first place.

The parents explained that their son had been restrained 13 times in one day and also spoke about verbal abuse by the principal toward their son. According to the parents, the principal had told their son to “shut up,” and their son also reported that he had been physically pushed by the principal and stressed that he was bullied by the administrator. 

Noting that their son was often put into “seclusion,” the parents said that in one instance, they found their son alone in a room with no shoes or socks and no windows.

Board President Marie Lanfrank, a retired director of special education, stated this was the first she and her fellow board members had heard of these circumstances. Heinegg acknowledged he was aware of the situation. 

Members of the audience, some of whom were visibly upset and crying during Monday’s meeting, noted that this situation “clearly indicates we need more behaviorists on staff as well as professional development.” 

As this is a matter of personnel, it was not disclosed whether the principal’s actions have been confirmed or reflected in his evaluation, which is completed by the superintendent.