By David Carroll

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- A city of Chattanooga traffic engineer has told Hamilton County school administrators that if DuPont Elementary School continues to prohibit walking, "we need to pull the crossing guard and school zone lights." Ben Taylor says, "those are installed for pedestrian safety."

The city traffic engineer's office got involved after numerous parent complaints against DuPont principal Anita Coleman's refusal to allow them to walk their children to school on a walking bridge over Hixson Pike. The walking bridge has connected the school to the Highwood Estates subdivision for more than forty years.

Taylor met with Coleman, assistant superintendent Ray Swoffard, and Outdoor Chattanooga coordinator Philip Pugliese to talk about the impasse.  Ironically, the meeting took place Wednesday, on "National Walk to School Day," in which parents and students were encouraged to hike to their neighborhood schools to promote fitness and fight obesity.

DuPont parent Cindy Higgins has actively fought Coleman's edict that prevents parents from walking their children to school.  Higgins says Coleman has told her she is trying "to maintain order, by not having children walk between buses and cars from the base of the walking bridge to the school building." But Higgins says her walking route "is nowhere near any buses.  We avoid them completely.  We're on the sidewalk, but she won't listen."

Engineer Taylor says with proper safety markings, anyone should be able to walk to the school.  He says such walkways are prominent at schools, shopping malls and college campuses in Chattanooga.  He says, "It's my job to provide and maintain safe areas for walkers and bike riders, and that can certainly be done at that school."  Taylor says he is working on a plan which would ensure safety for any foot traffic to and from DuPont."

Parents say Coleman has been unyielding on the issue, and has had the support of District 3 School Board member Everett Fairchild.  Fairchild told Eyewitness News that "Mrs. Coleman's plan seems to be working.  No one has been hurt."  He says he's hopeful a resolution can be reached, especially for the Highwood residents.  "Of course some people are just trying to avoid car lines, and they'll park at some of the businesses on Hixson Pike, and that creates a whole new set of problems," Fairchild said.  Higgins says she has permission from her dentist on Hixson Pike "to park in his lot anytime night or day.  But we would only do that if it's raining.  Most of the time, we walk from home.  I love to walk, and so do my kids.  They don't understand why we can't walk to school."

Laurie Shipley, a neighborhood resident whose daughter attended the school from 1997 to 2003, said, "I walked my daughter to school for years on that bridge.  I served on the school's PTA board under two great principals, Eunice Hodges and Carol Langston, and we never had any safety issues.  I don't remember this ever coming up before."

Taylor says he's working on his plan to update the crossing area and the DuPont parking lot with safety features that will "be up to current standards."  He says, "with that crosswalk bridge, I can understand why parents and students want to use it.  A lot of schools would love to have something like that."  He says although Hixson Pike is a city street, "DuPont is a Hamilton County school, so ultimately it's their decision.  But I can come up with a way to make it safe for walkers to get to that school.  It can be done."

Asst. Supt. Swoffard told Eyewitness News, "Our safety director, has been over to observe the dismissal procedures, and we met yesterday with the county and city traffic engineers to explore solutions to the perceived problem.  We are waiting for the city engineer to put recommendations or any compliance issues in writing to us for review. The school administration is comfortable with any parent in that neighborhood walking his/her children to school (from home).  They do not think it is safe for students to walk alone."

Higgins says, "That's the first I've heard of that.  Principal Coleman has not told me at any time that she is comfortable with me walking my child to school from home.  I guess if she has a problem with it now, I'll tell her to call her boss."