UPDATE: To ensure the safety of students who walk to Wallace Stegner Academy, the barbed wire fence has been cut down and the school’s co-founder Adam Gerlach said Tuesday morning, a Utah Department of Transportation crew cleared the weeds and will bring in gravel to keep the weeds down and from students having to walk through mud in poor weather conditions.
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (ABC4) – A sidewalk in West Valley City abruptly ends just short of a new charter school. A mother is concerned for her daughter – and other children’s safety – as they have to walk the rest of the way to school on the side of the road or take a shortcut on a dirt path with a barbed-wire fence.
First-grade student Nyellie Harris, her mother, Elizabeth Harris, and her five-month-old brother walk to and from Wallace Stegner Academy West Valley every day.
“We get to where the light is, where the sidewalk ends and we’re like, ‘Where do we go?’ because the shoulder has bushes in it and then my stroller can’t fit, and we just have to be on the road?” Elizabeth Harris said. “Here we are, walking on the road with cars flying past us.”
The mother of two said the only way to avoid walking on the shoulder of the road is to walk through dirt, weeds and to cross under a barbed-wire fence.
“I have him in the carrier, I have to bend down and get my hair stuck to the barbed wire,” she said. “It’s a mess. Her skirt gets stuck to it. Neither option is safe.”
Six-year-old Nyellie Harris told ABC4 News on their way to school, she and her mom will often press a crosswalk button to stop cars and to buy them some time to make it safely to the school. But she says right now, she’d rather walk through the dirt.
“Barbed wire or road and I prefer barbed wire because there’s a dead bunny [on the side of the road],” she said.
After the first day of school when they realized this situation, Elizabeth Harris said she emailed school officials about the matter.
“I said, ‘I have a concern about the students who are walking to and from school,” she read from her email.
Elizabeth Harris said school officials wrote her back.
“He said, ‘We have no control over the city’s lack of sidewalks. I’ll walk over there today, but I’m not sure there’s anything we can do,” she read.
In an attempt to find answers, Elizabeth Harris said she reached out to multiple officials, but no one seemed to know who the right contact is.
Adam Gerlach, a co-founder of Wallace Stegner Academy, said there are about five families who walk to the school and everyone else is driven into the school.
He told ABC4 News Friday that there was one day he helped Nyellie Harris get her hair unstuck from the barbed wire fence.
“It’s not something I would want to do either – it’s horrible,” he said.
Gerlach said he reached out to the landowner Friday morning to see if he can cut down the barbed wire fence.
“There’s no reason for the barbed wire to be up. If he gives me the go ahead, I’m going to go cut it down and make it, so they don’t have to deal with that barbed wire anymore,” he said.
And when asked about if he has any ideas of what to do about the dirt and weeds, and he said he would see if the school could put down a weed barrier and some gravel, pending approval from the landowner.
ABC4 News also reached out to West Valley City, where spokesperson Sam Johnson looked into the situation.
Johnson said while public schools are required to notify city officials about their plans, charter schools do not.
“The school was built within a year or less and we don’t know it’s going in and especially in a less developed part of the city, so it put us behind the eight-ball trying to find safe ways for kids to get to school when we weren’t even aware it was happening because they didn’t need to let us know,” he said.
He continued to say why the city did not know about the charter school is because they do not give any school its building permit.
“Cities do not have the authority to approve or deny a school being built within its borders,” Johnson said. “So, if a school is built without the infrastructure in place, you’re going to have a school without the infrastructure in place.”
But Gerlach said the school submitted their SNAP plans to the city on January 21.
“I had a back and forth with them about having a crosswalk, a school zone and those kinds of things and their response back was that since you’re not encouraging families to walk, there’s no need for us to do any of those things,” Gerlach said.
Johnson said there are future development plans, including sidewalks, but as of right now, the charter school was built in a less developed area of the city.
“We hope when someone is looking to build a school there, they’re understanding the surrounding area,” he said. “If it’s a school going into place in three or four years…they give years in advance notice that we can work with them and make sure the infrastructure is in place.”
Elizabeth Harris and her daughter don’t want to wait years to make sure students get to school safely.
“It’s just a recipe for disaster,” she said.
While city planning takes some time, Johnson said city officials are now looking at how to make sure students at Wallace Stegner Academy get to school OK. He hopes the charter school will work with the city to make it possible.
Gerlach said the city had been helpful with traffic in the area, and he said he’s open to conversation of improving safety for walking students.
“Walking to school is part of that battle and we need to find out what we can do to help them,” he said. “If the city wants to come in and we can decide where the sidewalk is going to be and we can start doing some prep work, too.”
“We’re open to all those discussions, and in the meantime, we’re looking into those solutions as well,” Johnson said.
As school got out Thursday afternoon, ABC4 News saw a West Valley City employee near the school, checking out the area.