A Playground Paid for With Youths' Lives

Times Staff Writer

Deng Yating died because she was one of the tallest students in her class.

On that cold November morning, the 16-year-old was at the back of the pack of about 800 students jogging in the darkness on a narrow two-lane road for their predawn gym class. Nearby, teacher Jiang Hua carried only a feeble flashlight to protect his students against the traffic that raced up behind them. The driver of the oversized truck never saw it.

Among the first ones hit was Jiang, as he waved to head off the fast-approaching calamity he saw over his shoulder. The next to die were the tall children, who had been lined up by height at the tail end of the class.

By the time the truck crashed to a stop, knocking down a row of trees, it had killed 21 people, including Yating.

The girl's father, Deng Nianzhu, and other parents who rushed to the scene described unbearable carnage.

"The bodies were all tangled up," he said.

As news of the tragedy at Qinyuan No. 2 Middle School here in central China's Shanxi province spread, it quickly emerged as much more than a freak accident. It came to symbolize the problems dogging China's vast school system as the country emerges as an economic giant.

As it turns out, Qinyuan is far from the only school asking its students to exercise on public roads. With schools critically short of funding for physical education, many provide little, if anything, in the way of exercise facilities.

This can prove embarrassing for a country that prides itself on producing international sports icons such as NBA star Yao Ming and building state-of-the-art stadiums for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"This is a case of lopsided development," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing. "The problem is an overemphasis on competitive sports. The country is willing to spend billions to chase gold medals and host the Olympics. But it has devoted too little resources to basic physical education for the masses."

Last month, the central government issued a ban on elementary and middle school children jogging on public roads. But critics say the order is merely cosmetic and doesn't address the fundamental issue of why the students run on roads in the first place.

After market-style changes began to alter China two decades ago, the central government gave most of the responsibility for funding public education to local jurisdictions. But impoverished areas have trouble providing such basics as teacher salaries, heat for classrooms, even books and desks. Playground space does not rank as a high priority.

Out of desperation, and sometimes when not so necessary, some schools rent out precious real estate, turning playgrounds into parking lots, factories or practice courses for driving schools. When teachers need housing, schools that can't afford to obtain land elsewhere typically put the squeeze on school playgrounds.

As a result, many schools are left with shrinking campuses. Students are forced to take turns for recess. Others simply stay indoors.

It's a matter of priorities, observers say. Only 2% of China's gross domestic product is devoted to education, according to a recent report by the United Nations Development Program. The recommended international standard is 6%.

Even if more money was allotted to education, it wouldn't mean that more would go to sports.

"They might use the money to buy computers instead," Zhou said. "The national mind-set needs to change. We need to care more about ordinary students' health."

The history of Qinyuan No. 2 Middle School mirrors that of many small-town schools in the country's impoverished heartland. Originally housed in a temple in the 1950s, it was lucky to move to a former machine-making factory that went bankrupt. Today, the tiny campus is sandwiched among several factories, including a coal refinery and, residents say, an explosives storage facility.

For years, the school tried to expand its playground, which provides enough stretching room for only about 200 of its 1,100 students. It was unable to secure the rights to fields nearby -- until two weeks after the accident, when the local government helped bulldoze the previously untouchable farmland and turned it into a playground, of sorts.

"We don't run on the street anymore," said one teacher there who declined to give his name. "We have a new playground. Why they didn't do this earlier, I don't know."

The recent economic boom has transformed China from a place of bicycles into a car- and truck-infested nation with some of the most deadly roads on Earth. More than 89,000 people were killed in traffic accidents in the first 11 months of 2005, according to official figures.

Until the deadly accident here drew national attention to the issue of safe playgrounds, many youngsters accepted that when it came to exercise, it was the highway or no way.

Even some of the parents of the victims grew up running on the streets.

"When we were young, there weren't that many cars on the road," Deng Nianzhu said. "When a car did pass, it was a big deal. Now the traffic just doesn't stop."

The narrow two-lane highway in front of the middle school is a major thoroughfare for giant coal trucks and a hot spot for accidents.

In September, a bus struck and killed a teacher near the front of the campus. A student at a nearby school was hit by a motorcycle recently while jogging in the morning.

Many more accidents go unreported, parents say. But the November crash was too big to ignore.

Facing scrutiny and bad publicity, school and local officials offered to compensate the victims' families about $25,000 each. To get the money, families had to sign waivers promising not to press the issue further.

But parents say they can't stop the questions that race through their brains.

"Accidents happen all the time on that road -- why were they making the kids run when it was still dark out?" asked Yao Jianjun, whose only son, Yao Xin, 16, was killed.

That makes it a double tragedy in his family. Xin was a cousin of Deng Yating; their mothers are sisters.

Yao's worst fear is that his boy could have been saved.

"His friends remember hearing him scream for help," Yao said. "We don't think he was injured that badly. That morning, my wife got on her knees and begged them to let her see our son. They would not let her. When we finally saw him later that night at 11 p.m., he was dead. But his body was still warm."

Deng Yating's mother, An Xiaohong, said in tears that her daughter was a good student who did everything she was told.

"The school has a rule. If you are late for the morning run, you have to buy a broomstick for the class as punishment," An said. "I always tell her, if you don't feel well, don't go. But she's never been late in her life."

The day before she died, Yating cleaned the house and washed everyone's clothes by hand. Her parents, who work 15 hours a day making tofu to sell at the street market, were still asleep when their daughter left for school.

The next time they saw her, she was lying in a coffin.

"These kids never should have died," said Yao, the grieving father. "The school built the new playground to show they are doing something about the problem. But it's too late. Twenty-one people paid for that playground with their lives. Nothing will ever bring them back."

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