- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Taheron Johnson Sr., 35, and Taheron Johnson Jr., 8, new backpack in hand, arrived at Suitland Elementary School yesterday morning, ready to start the school year right — together.

“Education is important to me,” Mr. Johnson said. “I only finished two years of college, and I want him to achieve great things. I want him to use his mind.”

Taheron and his father were among hundreds of parents and children in Prince George’s County who made the first day of school a family affair. The county’s “Embrace Our Village,” campaign, a part of the nationwide Million Father March, encouraged parents to bring their children to school on the first day as a way of promoting family involvement.

“If you go to the county jail, you will find men that have fourth- and fifth-grade reading levels,” said Walter L. Dozier, education liaison for Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and organizer of the countywide event. “If we focus on fathers with sons, we hope we can change that. We need to get more positive male role models out to these schools.”

Encouraging fathers to help keep children off the streets is especially important at Suitland Elementary, a new $15.7 million school on Homer Avenue. In the past three months, a homicide, four sexual assaults, and dozens of assaults, burglaries and robberies have occurred within a mile of the school — making the new campus the epicenter of one of the most dangerous areas in the county.

Only children living outside that radius are provided bus service — the rest must walk through the blighted neighborhood or be driven to school.

Three uniformed Prince George’s County police officers stood guard outside the school yesterday morning as parents finished registering their children. The officers reassured fathers and mothers who expressed concerns that the area is too dangerous to walk through.

Maj. Markus Summers, commander of the county’s police District 3, and Sharon Taylor, a spokeswoman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson, also were on hand.

“We’re here to welcome the kids,” said Maj. Summers, sporting his side arm. “We haven’t had any concern about kids going to school here in all the years I’ve been a police officer. This school is an example of the redevelopment in the community. We are here to tell people there will be no occasion for concern.”

Parents and some school officials disagreed. “I’m not worried for myself, since I’m a Christian,” said Freda Porter, 49, an assistant principal at Suitland Elementary. “But I do worry for the children. If they have to walk or if something is going on out there, I worry.”

About 20 parents gathered outside the school yesterday afternoon to pick up their children after dismissal. Most said they didn’t feel comfortable letting their children walk home alone, and that they have called schools officials and Mr. Johnson to help address the issue. Those calls have not yet been returned.

“We’ve been trying to talk to the Board of Education about bus transportation,” said Stephanie Dobson, whose 11-year-old daughter Tiphanie attends Suitland. “If you walked down Shadyside [Avenue], you wouldn’t want to walk by yourself, let alone a kid.”

Many said their children are forced to walk on streets lined with apartments inhabited by drug dealers.

Miss Dobson, who plans to circulate among parents this morning a petition calling for buses for their children, said at least five registered sex offenders live in the area.

“They have them walking down Homer Avenue with all abandoned complexes,” said Christal Roseboro, who wants to transfer her daughter to Francis Scott Key Elementary School in District Heights. “They’re all little girls in my complex.”

Meanwhile, school officials briefly closed Central High School, G. James Gholson Middle School and Cora L. Rice Elementary School as police searched for a carjacking suspect from Montgomery County.

Police said that as they searched for the driver of a stolen burgundy Chevy Tahoe, three more persons driving a stolen Dodge Intrepid came into the search perimeter, near Saint Margarets Drive and Rolling Ridge Drive. Police said two persons remained at large last night.

About 139,000 students are registered for the school year in the county. The county has 199 schools, four of them new. The county has 143 teacher vacancies, which officials are filling with substitute teachers.

School officials said the installation of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and two-way radios on all of the county’s 1,357 buses has been completed. The systems relay signals back to a large monitor in the school system’s transportation center, where employees track the location and speed of each bus.

Aside from one bus arriving late at a school yesterday, Michael Dodson, transportation director of the county’s public schools, said the first day of using the systems went smoothly.

“It went reasonably well,” he said. “It helped us notify buses that schools were looking for, and there weren’t that many late.”

Schools in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties and the District will begin Monday. Most schools in Alexandria City and Fairfax and Arlington counties will start Sept. 6.

Matthew Cella contributed to this report.

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