For the Horizon West community, a new middle school has meant both new changes and challenges.
The opening of Horizon West Middle School meant much-need relief for nearby Bridgewater Middle School, but the first few weeks of the school’s existence also have raised concerns about traffic and safety along and surrounding Tattant Boulevard.
But don’t fret, Horizon West Middle parents. Orange County Government, Orange County Public Schools and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office all are aware.
“Each year, it takes about three to four weeks to get the school traffic smoothed out,” Orange County School District 4 Board Member Pam Gould said. “That said, with all the growth, I work with Commissioner (Betsy) VanderLey on evaluating and improving traffic areas. The county and OCPS are aggressively recruiting crossing guards, which would also help. … We are also evaluating each school to see what on-site improvements can be made.”
Long lines for pick-up and drop-off outside Horizon West Middle have led to some parents finding alternative means to get near the school, including parking along nearby residential streets.
Bus service only is available to students who live more than 2 miles away from the school. According to Orange County Public Schools, 60% of the 1,215 students at Horizon West Middle live within a 2-mile radius and therefore have to walk, ride a bike or be dropped off via passenger vehicle.
The traffic situation around Horizon West Middle was launched into the spotlight Aug. 21, when a video taken in the Ashlin Park neighborhood near Horizon West Middle School went viral.
The video captured an angry outburst from a woman after Horizon West Middle parent Diana Romero parked her Range Rover along a neighborhood alley to drop off her oldest daughter.
Romero, who also lives in Ashlin Park, said the woman yelled at both her and her daughter, telling them to leave and using vulgar language. Her younger daughter, who is preschool age, was also in the backseat of her car during the incident.
“I understand if you feel mad with that situation — she could tell me, ‘Hey, please, no parking here. I don’t like it. It’s my property,’ but she was really disrespectful,” Romero said. “She’s screaming at me. ... I’m with my baby, and I can do nothing. She said a lot of bad words in front of my daughters, and I feel really offended about that.”
Romero said she was dropping off her daughter within Ashlin Park because of the long line of cars that accumulated before the beginning of the school day. She added the line sometimes took an hour to get through, and it prevented her from dropping off her younger daughter at preschool.
Her family only lives a couple of blocks away, but Romero said her daughter likes to be dropped off closer so she doesn’t have to walk as far.
Romero said she called police shortly after the incident, but officers confirmed she was not allowed to park along the alley.
“I’m frustrated, because the police (should) talk with (the woman),” Romero said. “That behavior is really bad for the kids. Because she didn’t touch me, it’s not assault, but she told me a lot of words that were really disrespectful.”
Horizon West resident Dayna Gaut said she remembers having to sit in the lines outside of school to pick up her child years ago. Parents still need to follow the rules, she said.
“The biggest problem is that it bleeds into side streets, because parents won’t follow the rules and drop off their kids at the car circle because it takes time,” Gaut said. “When parents try to find different ways or park illegally … it’s caused a lot of problems.
“Parents need to understand that sitting in a car circle is part of being a parent if your kid does not ride their bike, walk or take a bus,” she said. “If you can’t handle it, put your kids in after-school care or find something else, but road-raging is not good for the community.”
Lauren Roth, senior manager of facilities communications for OCPS, said the traffic situation around the school has, in fact, improved over time.
“It’s not taking any more than 15 minutes for parents to get their students picked up and dropped off,” Roth said. “It’s never really been longer than 40 (minutes), even on the first day. They have a really good process there.”
MORE CROSSING GUARDS?
Horizon West Middle parents such as Richard Caruana, who has a son in sixth grade who bikes, have wondered when the school will receive more crossing guards. Only one has been in place since the school’s opening, he said.
The current crossing guard — established through the Orange County Sheriff’s Office — stands at a crosswalk near the bike rack area, but another crosswalk exists farther west, close to the bus drop-off area.
It’s not only about the safety but also improving the flow of the students trying to get to the school, Caruana said.
“I think the school is trying to address it,” Caruana said. “There’s an area that’s right at the school — a crosswalk, which is another area where I think they should be allowing kids to cross there, but there’s no guards there. Everybody’s getting bottle-necked at the front of the school. That’s where cars are coming in, that’s where bikes are coming in, that’s where kids are coming in and I think a lot of the frustration is that the school has (one) area for crossing.
“You’re talking 1,200 kids are flowing through there,” he said. “Why don’t they spread that out a little bit? … It will flow a lot quicker. … I just don’t think the school was built preparing for the amount of bodies they were going to get.”
Kelly Finkelstein, senior public information officer for Orange County, said Aug. 23 that steps already are in motion to place more signage outside the school. Additional crossing guards also should be coming soon, she said.
“Orange County Government is working together with our partner agencies to address the need for additional traffic control devices and school crossing guards in and around Horizon West Middle School,” Finkelstein said. “Orange County Public Schools plans to install pedestrian crossing signage in front of the school next week. Because OCPS has notified the Orange County Government that school zone flashing beacons are currently on back-order, the county is supporting OCPS by installing static reduced-speed school-zone signage in front of the school until OCPS can install permanent flashing beacons.
“We are committed to ensuring that our children have a clear and safe path to all schools in Orange County,” she said. “We will continue to work together with our partner agencies on this important matter.”
As of Thursday, Aug. 29, Roth said that school speed limit signs with times, crosswalk ahead signs and end school zone signs have been installed in both directions along Tattant Boulevard.