Bus stop safety: Who is watching Cleveland's children?

CLEVELAND, Ohio - On the day Alainna DeFreeze was killed, the 14-year-old boarded the first of two Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority buses that would take her the three miles to her charter school. She never made it onto the second. Instead, she...

Bus stop safety: Who is watching Cleveland's children?

CLEVELAND, Ohio - On the day Alainna DeFreeze was killed, the 14-year-old boarded the first of two Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority buses that would take her the three miles to her charter school. She never made it onto the second. Instead, she was abducted one-tenth of a mile from the bus stop, her body found three days later in an abandoned house nearby.

The case unnerved parents throughout the city who worried about what was being done to help keep their children safe as they headed to and from their schools.

"It jogs everyone into realizing that these terrible things are happening," said Chief John Joyce, head of RTA's transit police. "They do happen and you have to be aware of it."

Across the county, kids like DeFreeze head out in the early morning hours to catch the bus to school, largely on their own on the trek from home to school.

  • Read more: Alianna's last journey down Kinsman Road offers lessons in the dark

Getting to school

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District provides yellow bus transportation for all students in PreK through 6th grade who live more than a mile from school, but older students take RTA.

Private schools, including Catholic schools, offer limited yellow bus transportation to students. However, because the populations of those schools are so scattered, most students rely on RTA transportation. 

On the morning of her disappearance, DeFreeze was headed to E Prep & Village Prep Woodland Hills, a Breakthrough Schools charter school.

DeFreeze was last seen just west of East 93rd Street and Kinsman Road, less than a mile from school and within sight of the Fourth District police station.

"It's very tragic, and we're all trying to come up with ways to make it safe for kids," said John Zitzner one of the founders of Breakthrough Schools. "It's truly a community problem, and I don't think any of us have the answers."

Because of financial concerns, only a few Breakthrough schools offer limited busing, Zitzner said, but E Prep is not one of them.

Each school year, RTA distributes 18,000 bus passes to students, which result in about 3 million public transit rides annually by school-age children.

The transit agency has 137 officers in its police force and 6,000 bus stops and 1,200 shelters in its footprint, as well as 300 buses on the roads during morning and evening rush hour.

"There are a lot of kids and a lot of trips in a lot of places and a limited number of officers," Joyce said.

Policing the streets

The transit police, the Cleveland Police Department and CMSD work together to monitor the safety of school children - from the buses to the bus stops to the streets.

CMSD has 22 mobile patrol units that monitor heavily-traveled routes before and after school, said Roseann Canfora, CMSD communications officer.

Transit police focus on RTA stations, platforms, trains and buses and mostly rely on local police departments to monitor bus stops, Joyce said.

"As part of their patrol duties, officers give special attention to bus stops, walking routes and any area that children may congregate during school hours," said Detective Reginald Lanton of the Cleveland Division of Police. "Crossing guards are also trained to monitor bus stops and walking routes near or at their intersections."

Likewise, bus operators are instructed to be attentive observers, Joyce said.

"Our operators are very cognizant that they need to be aware of and on the lookout for issues and concerns," Joyce said.

All RTA buses also have cameras on them - both inside and outside of the vehicle.

"As they're going down the street, they're recording everything," RTA's Joyce said.

When DeFreeze went missing, transit police used bus video footage to determine that she had been on the No. 14 bus but never made it to a second bus.

"When it was discovered she didn't come home, when it was discovered she was missing, Cleveland [PD] reached out to us. It was critical for us to find out if she was on our bus," Joyce said.

Officers also used the footage to rule out potential suspects in her abduction by locating the people in question on other buses.

Beyond the badge

Through its Safe Routes to School program, CMSD determines the best routes for students to walk to school.

District employees walk the neighborhoods and take note of things like abandoned houses, railroad tracks and routes that are too shrouded by bushes and then map out routes that avoid those areas, said CMSD's Canfora.

And schools like DeFreeze's E Prep and Horizon Science Academy, another charter school, meet students outside before and after school.

"Our street isn't nearly as busy as a lot of those other streets, which is fortunate for our students and their families," said Chevawn Sluzewski, a spokesperson for the South Marginal Road Horizon school. 

For schools like E Prep that are in more populated areas like the Union-Miles neighborhood, teachers just try to keep an eye on students for as long as they can.

"We try to do everything we can to have an adult presence around our kids," E Prep's Zitzner said. "Once they kind of drive away from the premises, they kind of scatter out."

  • Read more: Family, community says goodbye to Alianna DeFreeze

Since DeFreeze's disappearance, the Mt. Pleasant Ministerial Alliance launched a "Safe Schools" program in which pastors from area churches walk the streets around target schools before and after school. 

And all of the Breakthrough Schools have people outside in the mornings and afternoons directing traffic, and teachers walk kids to the bus stop after school, he said.

Since DeFreeze's abduction, those efforts have continued but with even more urgency.

"We continue to walk our kids to the bus. Obviously, we're in a heightened mode of being sensitive to that particular area around the school," Zitzner said. "We're all very sad about the situation and are doing whatever we can."


Creating Deeper Connection - Community Solutions

What: E Prep will be hosting a community event to focus on safety along the E. 93rd corridor.

When: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 25

Where: E Prep Woodland Hills, 9201 Crane Ave., Cleveland, OH 44105

Who: Cleveland and transit police officers, elected officials, faith organizations and mental health providers, among others, are expected to attend. 

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