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Officials caution motorists as school year begins

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

The Henry County Police Department is urging motorists to obey school-safety laws, and be especially cautious in school zones this school year.

According to Police Capt. Jason Bolton, the department is planning to increase its school-safety focus, in part, to curtail potential traffic problems, which might occur because of the implementation of a Henry County Schools transportation policy that will increase the number of children walking to school.

The Henry school board recently decided to implement a policy allowing only students who live more than a mile from school to be eligible for bus transportation.

Implementing the policy, school officials said, would affect between 1,500 and 2,500 students who live within one mile of their respective schools. Meaning, the parents of those students would have to provide transportation.

The police department has been preparing for how the implementation might affect traffic conditions, according to Bolton. He said the department's Special Operations Division (SOD) would be out in full force, in anticipation of increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic around schools.

Police Maj. Stoney Mathis added: "We have targeted schools that we feel will most likely have the most volume. Our SOD units will be in these areas to ensure a free flow of traffic, and to ensure the safety of the children."

Bolton said the police department has spent the summer hiring additional school crossing guards to assist with the opening of four new schools, in the McDonough and Locust Grove areas.

He said the department would also be conducting increased operations under "the GUARDIAN plan." The plan, he said, involves police officers riding on school buses to catch motorists who illegally pass buses that have their flashing lights and stop signs activated. "We started this operation about a year ago, after a little girl was struck by a vehicle as she exited her school bus on Jonesboro Road," he said. "Fortunately, the victim survived the accident, but we want very much to keep things like this from happening again."

He said passing a school bus with its emergency equipment activated is in violation of Georgia Law 40-6-163, and carries a $500 fine. "It should also be noted that speeding fines in a school zone are doubled," he said. "Motorists could face up to a $2,400 fine for going 39-plus miles per hour over the speed limit in a school zone."

School officials explained that the transportation policy -- adopted in August 1990, but not enforced -- is being enforced this year as a means to cut costs, since there are no funds to purchase more buses.

Board Chairman Ray Hudalla said state funding cuts and losses in local revenue have caused the system to start cutting back on some services it provides, including the previous courtesy service of extending transportation to students within a one mile radius of schools.

Hudalla said earlier this week that the school system has already experienced some $23.5 million in state funding cuts, less than a month into its Fiscal Year 2010 Budget. He said more state funding cuts could be on the way, leaving the school board to look at even more ways to economize.

"With the anticipated increase in traffic during the opening of school, we appreciate the efforts of all the law-enforcement agencies for their proactive efforts in helping in this transition," said Connie Rutherford, spokeswoman for Henry County Schools. "Speaking specifically for Henry County Schools, the School Resource Officers (through the Sheriff's Department) will be out in full force throughout the county ..."