Anxious to reach her mother parked across the street from Peach Hill Elementary School in Moorpark, a first-grader dashed into traffic from between two parked cars and was struck by a minivan.
To avoid repeating such a tragic scene, police across Ventura County are urging parents to talk to their children about safety when traveling to and from school. Authorities say it's also a good time to remind parents of ways they can make school zones safer for kids and crossing guards.
"I have no problems with the kids," said Raymond Pfeiffer, a crossing guard for Thousand Oaks who works near University Elementary School. "It's the motorists who always try to sneak around the corner while I'm helping the children."
More than 4,000 California children ages 5 to 15 were killed or injured in pedestrian-related crashes in 1997, according to Jeff Spring, a spokesman for the Auto Club of Southern California. Eighty-seven of those youngsters were injured in Ventura County and one was killed.
As a result, authorities say it's critical that kids be taught the dangers of traveling city streets as well as ways to stay safe once they arrive home.
While some suggestions may seem basic, they bear repeating, warned Deputy Bud McCracken, an Ojai-based traffic investigator for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.
Parents with children who walk, bike or roller blade to school should figure out the safest route for their kids. They should then walk the route with their youngsters, explaining traffic laws and identifying businesses, churches or other places along the way where they could seek help.
Children should first be reminded to cross the street in designated crosswalks, preferably those controlled by a crossing guard.
If a crosswalk is unavailable, kids should be advised to cross at a corner and never to enter a street from between parked cars, which increases the risk that drivers will be unable to see them until it's too late. Such was the case three years ago, McCracken said, referring to the girl who was injured in front of Peach Hill Elementary School.
If possible, youngsters should try to travel to and from school in small groups with friends and to always stay on the sidewalk. They should also never talk to strangers and if they see something unusual, they should seek help immediately.
"If they're near a business they should run and tell someone that there's a stranger out there and this is what they're doing," McCracken said.
Parents should advise their child that if they are grabbed by a stranger, they should shout, "Mom, dad, help me!"
"Everybody around will realize that the person grabbing the child is not the child's parents," McCracken explained.
Likewise, youngsters should always check with a teacher or another adult at their school before leaving campus with a stranger, even if that person claims to be a police officer or firefighter and has a badge, he added.
Some authorities recommend that parents and children choose a specific code word to identify someone sent by parents to pick them up from school in the event of an emergency. The child should be taught to refuse to go with anyone who does not know the code word.
And when walking in darkness, youngsters should wear light clothing, preferably with reflectors. During the daytime, bright clothing improves the odds they'll be quickly noticed by drivers.
If a youngster must ride a bike at night, they should be sure their bike's headlight and reflectors are in good condition, said Spring of the Auto Club. Parents should also make their children wear bicycle helmets, obey all traffic rules and signs and always give proper hand signals.
Kids should not only walk their bikes across busy intersections, according to Spring, but they should also ride in the same direction as traffic, staying as close as possible to the right hand side of the road.
Motorists could improve traffic conditions near schools, said Pfeiffer the crossing guard, if they would just slow down. Sporting a fluorescent orange vest, a red stop sign in hand and a black whistle on a string circling his neck, Pfeiffer helped several dozen children on a recent morning safely cross the intersection of Avenida de Los Arboles and Mount Clef Boulevard.
"It would make me kind of scared if Ray wasn't around, because some people stop but other people don't," said Sarah, an 11-year-old sixth grader at University. "It's really pretty annoying."
Failing to follow traffic laws--like reduced speed limits--near school zones is also illegal. As Pfeiffer helped Sarah cross the street, a Ventura County sheriff's deputy parked up the street was busy writing out his third ticket of the morning.
Such scenes could be avoided, according to Simi Valley Police Sgt. Jeff Malgren, if parents and other motorists would "be patient and give yourself plenty of time in the morning."
All too often, Malgren said he has seen rushed parents drop their kids across the street from a school, forcing the kids to have to cross a busy road. Other common problems near schools, according to authorities, include parents impeding traffic with their car, double-parking or leaving a car unattended.
And for working parents who are unable to be with their kids when they arrive home from school, now is the time to teach youngsters how to keep their guard up when they're home alone.
Simi Valley Police Officer Don Anderson suggests parents have the child call them at work each day to let them know they have arrived home safely. Kids should also be advised that they should not enter their house if they find a door or window open and should instead go somewhere safe, such as a trusted neighbor's home, and call the police and have them check things out.
Anderson also advised that children left alone at home should be taught to never answer the door or telephone if it's a stranger. Calls can be screened by using an answering machine or parents can establish a specific phone-ringing pattern.
"Now's a good time for parents to go over general safety awareness around the home," Anderson said.