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WALKING TO SCHOOL IN CONSTANT FEAR SOME SAY A NEAR 3-MILE ROUND TRIP IS TOO DANGEROUS

YOU'RE NOT safe anymore even at 7:45 in the morning, walking to school.

That's the tragic lesson Lee learned at 15, when she was choked and raped on the way to school by a man who police believe later killed the University at Buffalo jogger.

Afterward, Lee -- who walked a mile and a third to Riverside High School -- tried to get a school bus pass, terrified that the killer still prowls the neighborhood.

It was a reasonable request, her parents believed. They pleaded for compassion to Buffalo school officials.

Lee was turned down, though she's just two-tenths shy of the mile-and-a-half busing limit. She was psychologically maimed by the attack, which took place May 1 of last year. She fears for her life each step along her nearly three-mile daily round trip.

Lee is not alone.

Other Buffalo students have been sexually assaulted on the way to school this year, according to Crisis Services, although no numbers are logged according to where the crime took place.

About 13,000 students walk to school -- some trudging considerable distances, through slush and snow, sometimes in the dark, up to three miles back and forth each day -- in a city where violent crime is swelling.

They walk because of a state education law created more than 40 years ago, in the comparatively safe post-World War II era -- prior to today's culture of violence, in which every 36 minutes a child is killed or injured by a bullet in the United States.

Some parents and officials believe we are not protecting our children and it's time for a change.

"We have to crusade on behalf of babies who are exposed to harassment, violent attacks and danger in terms of traffic," says Ellicott Council Member James W. Pitts, who has worked to have the policy amended. A public hearing in Buffalo on the issue, with Common Council members and state legislators, is expected early next year.

"In the type of society we live in now," Pitts says, "you can no longer walk along the side of a road without taking your life in your hands."

Lee's father, who is disabled, says school officials didn't take his daughter's request seriously: "They took it all as a big joke, it seemed like to me."

The School Board can make exceptions to the distance limit, but it will not be reimbursed by the state for the cost of busing those additional students.

"The state reimbursement for transportation legislation was designed 40 years ago, mainly for rural, less congested localities, without ever anticipating the problems that are manifest today," Pitts notes.

William Goldbach, assistant superintendent of service center operations (covering transportation) for the Buffalo Public Schools, comments:

"Right now we don't think we should issue a bus pass because of community conditions. Someone in the community that she's afraid of. That kind of thing."

Sharon Fawley, president of the Buffalo chapter of the National Organization for Women, counters: "What is the community, then? That killer is not a member of a community I want to belong to."

In a second interview, Goldbach elaborates:

"From my seat it's important that we do things consistently and equitably.

"Is that parent's concern (Lee's father's) any greater than the parent who has a 4-year-old to go to school, and three infants at home and she can't leave the house?"

When one of Goldbach's sons was a high school junior, the boy was mugged and horribly beaten.

"I don't know if my reaction was as great as if I had a daughter who was raped, but to me at the time, I think it was.

"I think I can feel the hurt and also the frustration that your kids are out there exposed to something, and you never thought it would happen and when it did happen, you wondered, cripe, this may happen again. It's scary.

"The state Education Department says these hazardous conditions are not a consideration."

The New York State Crime Victims Board, after a reporter's inquiries, reopened Lee's case -- and agreed to compensate her $38 a year for a Metro Bus pass.

Lee's case won't be the last, predicts Sharon Simon, coordinator of Crisis Services' advocate program for victims of rape and sexual assault.

"A fair number of kids, in springtime particularly, are assaulted on their way to school.

"Imagine being a kid who has to walk almost a mile and a half every day and feel threatened. That child does not want to go to school, because of fear. These safety issues should be talked about."

Walking a mile in their shoes might be impossible these days as, NOW President Ms. Fawley points out, "Kids today in some cities are being killed for sneakers." At least one Buffalo high school student had his sneakers ripped right off his feet when he was attacked near Main Street while walking home from school.

"These kids are so incredibly vulnerable," Ms. Fawley says.

Sgt. Vincent Delgato, head of the Erie County Sheriff's Department's Crime Prevention Community Relations Office, muses:

"Do you want a kid of yours walking nearly a mile and a half? In the city that's pretty far, considering how many blocks and corners there are.

"And there are a lot of sick people out there. A lot of sick people.

"I walked to school in the East Lovejoy section, Public School 43. We never even heard of such things when I was a kid."

Times have changed economically as well, says Pitts: "The problem relates to transportation cost.

"But what about allowing some flexibility in picking up some of these students? You could easily allow flexibility in those cases where there were hardships.

"We've looked at the situation of students who lived within a block of each other, where one would be allowed to catch a bus, and the other wouldn't.

"Legislation must be enacted that decreases the distance for which the state will provide a reimbursement of transportation costs."

After the attack on Lee, one concerned Buffalo parent, in a letter to this writer, noted:

"A lot of children take shortcuts to school over railroad tracks. Most of these children are considered just short of the 1 1/2 -mile limit.

"A child's safety to and from school is as important as a child's education."

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