When Labor Day weekend draws to a close, students throughout the region will bring an end to their summer vacations and head back to class, and police throughout the region are ramping up enforcement and urging both students and motorists alike to play it safe in order to help assure a happy start to the school year.
North Stonington schools went back into session in late August, an early start time impacted some by school construction, but classes will resume in Westerly, Stonington and Chariho Regional schools beginning Tuesday. Police in each community said this week that they are fully staffed and ready to go, both on the roads and in the schools.
"Our message as students head back to school is simple, we want everyone to remain safe," said Stonington Police Chief J. Darren Stewart, who serves as vice president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.
From crosswalk safety to distracted driving, police across the region said officers will be on the look out for unsafe practices in an effort to prevent tragedy.
Westerly Police Lt. Robert Warner said this week that Westerly police have already begun to emphasize travel safety ahead of the start of the school year. He said the department will only continue to ramp up effort over the coming month, noting that the town anticipates using grant funding from the state Department of Transportation to conduct safety enforcement during peak travel times at the start and end of the school day.
Both Warner and Stewart said when it comes to enforcement, distracted driving and student safety will be the top priorities in 2018.
"Members of the Westerly Police Department will continue to be attentive to violations of the relatively new, hands-free law, as well as monitoring obedience to school buses, as the school year begins. The collective effort is designed to maximize safety, particularly pedestrian safety," Warner said.
In Connecticut, Stewart said the police chiefs association partnered with WFSB in August to issue a public service announcement, one which details efforts to identify and ticket those who use a cell phone or are otherwise involved in unsafe distracted driving practices.
Furthermore, police in each of the regional towns said drivers should be prepared to face stiff consequences if they ignore bus warning lights.
Fines for passing a school bus that has its flashing red warning lights activated carries a $300 fine and possible 30-day suspension of license for first offense, and a mandatory fine of not less than $300 and/or revocation of license for one year for each subsequent offense. In Connecticut, drivers face a $465 fine for a first offense and a fine of $500 to $1,000 for subsequent offenses.
Like Warner, Stewart said the effort is not to interfere with people's lives or even issue tickets, but simply to prevent a tragedy.
But drivers aren't the only ones who need a reminder, police said. Parents should also talk with their children about safe practices including waiting for their bus in a safe place, staying out of the roadway whenever possible and only crossing the street after looking both ways, even if the bus lights are activated.
Parents may want to remind their children to be cognizant of their surroundings as they travel on foot. Suggestions, such as avoiding being engrossed in their cellular telephones or having their “ear buds” at such a volume that they cannot hear anything else, when they are walking, will increase their awareness and add to their safety.
"Communication is an important tool to assuring safety," Stewart said.
Stewart and Westerly Police Lt. Robert Warner each said this week that police will be on regular patrols, as well as conducting routine checks of the schools throughout the school day. Officers will be encouraged to monitor walking routes, as well as sit with their cruiser at the town's schools when they have paperwork or other administrative responsibilities.
Each of the communities also have dedicated officers who will serve directly at or in the schools throughout the year. Both Chariho and Westerly schools utilize school resource officers in the high school and middle school levels. In Stonington, Police Capt. Todd Olson said earlier this year that Youth Officer Thomas Paige provides regular, every day services for the town's schools.
Olson said the department also has a full-time patrol, in addition to Paige’s efforts, and an officer stops by every school at least twice a day. The timing of these visits is varied day-to-day as a preventive measure.
Police in Westerly, Richmond, Hopkinton and Charlestown all confirmed use of similar practices as an added sceurity measure and to help deter any sort of criminal behavior.
Each of the agencies also urged those concerned about anything safety related to reach out to police as soon as possible. Olson explained in a spring interview that officers would rather respond and find nothing than have a tragedy occur.
"If something doesn't seem right, say something," Olson said. "That's the most important message today."