- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The dozens of children learning to read and write at the six Amish schools in Somerset County get there the old-fashioned way: They walk.

No yellow buses ferry children from their farms to the one-room Summit Mills Schoolhouse near Meyersdale, a simple white-frame building heated by a fireplace. Only a small black bell on the roof hints at the building’s purpose.

Passing motorists don’t see school zone signs alerting them to watch for the students, who walk in the two-lane roadway out front.

The signs, used to lower speed limits in front of school property, aren’t required at any schools in the state but typically are posted by the municipality when requested, including at the 440 Amish schools. But the Amish, who believe their religious practices should be separate from the larger society, rarely ask elected officials for help. As a result, few have school zone signs.

Some Western Pennsylvania lawmakers want to change that.

“They won’t ask for anything or complain about anything,” said Byron Tielsch, 74, of Penn Hills, a self-appointed Amish advocate who has been close to the community near Meyersdale for more than 50 years. “But children are children, and these are schools. … Why wouldn’t they have these signs?”

Tielsch raised the issue with lawmakers, pointing out the “dangerous walk” students make to two Amish schools near Meyersdale - the Summit Mills School and Meadow Brook Amish Parochial School.

“These are country roads, no sidewalks,” he said last month. “And with all the snow being plowed, they’re walking farther toward the middle of the road.”

There are no “snow days” at Amish schools.

“They walk in all kinds of weather, they do,” said Susie Latshaw, 29, who lives behind an Amish church in Summit Township. “Portions of Mt. Davis Road often blow shut, but the Amish kids walk there every day - even in a blizzard.”

State Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, said lawmakers plan to introduce a resolution asking for a study of rural roads on behalf of any groups that are reticent about talking to the government.

“We’re going to ask PennDOT to take a look at this,” said DeLuca, who supports posting the signs. “We want to make sure people are protected. … If they don’t complain, nothing is going to get done.”

The issue has been overlooked in many parts of the state, lawmakers said, including Somerset County, which is home to one of the oldest Amish communities in North America.

Summit Township will post signs near the Summit Mills Schoolhouse and an Amish school on Rockdale Road as soon as they are delivered, Supervisor Greg Brant said.

“It was brought to our attention, and we’re going to put them up,” he said.

State officials said they aren’t sure how many schools the Amish operate. The Department of Education considers the schools private and nonpublic, and they aren’t required to register. Because many aren’t registered and the communities move frequently, keeping an accurate count of them is difficult, experts said. School zone signs are posted at some Amish schools in Somerset County, said state Rep. Carl Metzgar, a Republican who represents the area. But all Amish children deserve equal protection, he said.

“To that end, we’ll take care of our children no matter,” he said.

State Rep. Richard R. Stevenson, R-Butler and Mercer counties, where there are several Amish communities, said the Amish should have input in the decision. “I’m not familiar if the Amish feel it’s a good idea,” he said. “I’m not opposed to it. I’ll respect their wishes.”

An official at one Amish school in Somerset County said the community probably would accept the idea.

“I don’t see a problem with that,” said Robert Mast, a member of the school board at Stonybrook Parochial School.

Patty Painter of Indiana County, who has befriended the Amish in Smicksburg, said a family told her they would not ask for school zone signs but would accept their being installed.

Latshaw said locals driving near Amish settlements in Somerset County are accustomed to seeing pedestrians and buggies.

“People that live here and drive here know to expect Amish,” she said. “They’re on the road a lot, even at night.”

Though some Amish schools have signs with lower speed limits, “more are probably needed,” said Mark W. Dewalt, author of “Amish Education in the United States and Canada” and professor of educational research at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

“The kids are walking along the road with no shoulder,” he said.

A number of accidents involving Amish buggies have resulted in injury and even death, and pedestrian accidents involving Amish schoolchildren and teachers have occurred, DeWalt said.

In Lawrence County, where car and buggy crashes are not uncommon, some of the six Amish schools are unmarked, said Robert McCracken, executive vice president of the county Chamber of Commerce.

“You’ll see more signs about Amish buggy crossings,” he said. “The schools are on two-lane highways out in the boonies.”

Ohio allows non-chartered Amish schools to obtain speed zone signs to slow traffic in front of their buildings, and some Amish communities there are allowing students to wear reflective vests when they walk to school, DeWalt said. New York and Kentucky designate Amish school zones.

Patty Painter, who lives near an Amish school in Dayton, Indiana County, said she can’t recall seeing school zone signs near any Amish school.

“Nine-tenths of them are on back roads,” said Painter, who supports the idea of school zone signs there.

“Anytime you put up a sign, people tend to go slower,” she said.




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