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by Ellen Schreiber and Sara Masucci

Published in the Belmont Citizen-Herald.

From the front door to the science labs to the stoplight on Concord Avenue, decisions on the Belmont 7-12 School project have been made with the safety and security of Belmont’s children as the highest priority.

So how do we keep children safe in today’s world?

First, let’s discuss the safety and security issues inside the school that the new building will address.

1. We designed school entrances with vestibules and clear sightlines where visitors entering the building can be watched. The flow of people in and out of the building must be controlled through supervision and protocols that are supported by the building’s physical design. Experts in school design study this problem, and our new building is designed with 21st century security in mind.

2. We will eliminate hazardous materials endemic to 1960s construction. The asbestos in the ceiling of Belmont High School is well-contained, but it makes work difficult on an old building that frequently needs repairs. Our new building will meet current building codes – a significant improvement in safety.

3. We are adding sprinklers to all rooms in the building. Sprinklers don’t put out fires, but they provide the precious extra minutes that allow people to escape the building. 1960s building codes didn’t require sprinklers, and old buildings are grandfathered.

4. The new school finally addresses the overcrowding crisis. In science labs, overcrowding means too many students crowd around lab tables working with flames and chemicals. In standard classrooms, it means that desks, backpacks and children are packed in like sardines, making a quick exit difficult. Classes spill out into hallways, which are also filled with students doing homework because the library is full. Overcrowding is a safety issue.

If we want to keep Belmont’s children safe, we need to build the Belmont 7-12 School and remove the safety problems inside the old school building.

Now let’s look at safety outside the building.

Children come to school in many ways – walking, biking, bussing, and driving. Two sets of industry experts – with decades of professional experience – contributed to a campus design with separate pathways for walking and biking to create an environment where students are comfortable and safe. Further refinements will be developed during the next project phase called design development.

Off the campus, the safety of students is impacted by the rapid growth of cut-through traffic at rush hour. The Board of Selectmen have taken on this difficult-to-solve problem. In February, the town hired a traffic consulting firm to study and make recommendations regarding cut-through traffic. This work is underway. 

This summer, the Board of Selectmen created a Traffic Working Group to identify, evaluate, and recommend specific solutions. The group includes representatives from multiple neighborhoods around the school, as well as other town committees and departments. Members have extensive experience with Safe Routes to School and Walk Boston.

The Traffic Working Group is in its early stages. The goals are simple – slow down the traffic, reduce the number of cars, protect pedestrians, facilitate safe biking. Some traffic calming solutions are easy to agree upon. Road striping on Brighton Street and raised tables in front of the Burbank School have had a positive impact on motorist behavior and resulted in safer streets for students. The working group can prioritize problem intersections around our schools and design appropriate traffic calming measures. 

Some measures require a broad conversation with all stakeholders. Ideas that seem straightforward have residents who strongly agree and strongly disagree. But the Traffic Working Group can hold public discussions, design structured tests, and help the town design solutions that will have a significant impact on the safety of students on our streets and sidewalks.

The good news is that traffic calming is not dependent on the new school. It has already begun. The Board of Selectmen created the Traffic Working Group because they are committed to finding solutions now.

But the school cannot wait for traffic solutions.

Belmont’s children deserve a building that keeps them safe as they sit in class, enter the building, and approach the campus. The Belmont 7-12 School is the only solution that improves safety and security in all dimensions.

Vote YES for Belmont on Question #4 on November 6.