Parents, officials want additional measures after Willow Road playground crash

Peter Belfiore for Long Island Herald

January 23, 2020

Originally published in Long Island Herald on January 23, 2020.

With the temperature nearly 50 degrees on Jan. 2 — the first day back after the holiday break for most schoolchildren — it was good weather to hit the playground.

But shortly after 10:30 a.m., Willow Road Elementary School parent Lauren Quinlan said, she received a text message from another mother, telling her that there had been an accident at the school.

“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” she said.

A few minutes earlier, according to police and school officials, two North High School teenagers on lunch break had rounded a bend in their black Nissan Altima eastward on Shelburne Drive, lost control and barreled over a stop sign at the intersection of Catalpa Drive and Hewlett Street and through the school perimeter fence before coming to a stop underneath the playground swing set.

Nobody was on the playground at the time, but according to Quinlan, if the incident had happened a few minutes later, the story could have been different. “It’s an absolute miracle that there were no children on that playground,” she said.

There were no reported injuries, and police said the teenage driver of the car was issued a handful of summonses, but the accident has prompted a flurry of activity from school, state and town officials on how to avoid a repeat.

In the immediate aftermath, the Town of Hempstead Engineering Department undertook a traffic study of the surrounding streets, with a focus on the Catalpa Drive and Hewlett Street area, according to Supervisor Donald Clavin’s office.

The study is now complete, Clavin said in a statement, and the results are to be shared with School District 13 officials in the coming days, with further discussion on the next steps.

According to District 13 officials, Superintendent Dr. Constance Evelyn, working with town engineers, is seeking a redesign of the playground with perimeter fortifications.

Perhaps the most serious damage to the playground was from gasoline that had leaked from the car into the soil underneath the swing set. According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, roughly 15 gallons of gasoline spilled from the car, requiring crews to dig up enough soil to fill six 55-gallon drums.

District officials said they are still awaiting results from soil testing, and that Evelyn is planning to update the Willow Road school community in the coming week. She said she hopes the playground to become accessible again in the late spring, but in the interim it will remain closed to students at the school.

In a joint statement released after the crash, State Senators Todd Kaminsky and Anna Kaplan said they would be monitoring the cleanup effort. They also issued a letter to the town asking for additional signage on the roads surrounding the school, with the possibility of flashing lights or speed bumps.

Quinlan, a Willow Road PTA co-president, said that parents had planned to meet with district officials on Wednesday, after the Herald went to press. She said she expected the crash to be the chief topic of discussion at the meeting.

She said she believed that speed was a major factor in the crash. Her home is near the school, and although the area is designated as a 14-mph school speed zone, she said she had seen a number of vehicles speeding through the intersection.

“I live in the neighborhood, and it’s not just students,” Quinlan said. “It’s the parents, and sometimes garbage men; garbage trucks fly down [Catalpa]. I don’t know why, because it’s a residential neighborhood.”

In addition to Kaminsky’s and Kaplan’s suggestions, Quinlan said she would also like to see electronic speed indicators placed on some of the roads, although she acknowledged that any additions would be contingent on the town traffic study’s findings.

Still, she said, she hoped the officials involved would consider any and all suggestions. “Anything they could do to make it a little safer,” she said.