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Ben Rutberg

Special Correspondent

 

Ever since Ramsis Azir, currently employed by Central Café, began working at the Central St. Plaza 20 years ago, middle school students have been spending their Friday afternoons downtown.  Their weekly pilgrimage from Woodland St. to Washington St. has become a tradition older than some countries.

Now, however, the middle school administration and the police department are trying to put an end to the practice, which they see as unsafe, with a “proactive,” multi-pronged strategy, according to School Resource Officer Brian DiGiorgio.

As part of their strategy, the Robert Adams Middle School administration and the Holliston Police department jointly sent out an e-mail on September 29, expressing “some concerns with how our students walk to and from school,” particularly on Fridays.

It advises parents to discuss responsible behavior with their children, such as “[Obeying] traffic laws, especially when crossing over Washington St. …  [staying] on the sidewalks,” and “[being] courteous and respectful of the businesses in Holliston.”

According to the e-mail, the students who walk downtown every Friday afternoon number “nearly 250.”

“The primary issue,” said RAMS Principal Peter Botelho in a phone interview, “is just the sheer number of kids.”  The Holliston downtown area, only a couple blocks in each direction with narrow sidewalks and tightly packed businesses, is simply “a place that wasn’t built for that number of people.”  This becomes a safety hazard, especially when students try to cross the street.

With regard to possible safety risks, Mr. DiGiorgio said, “I’m a parent, and I probably wouldn’t allow my kids to linger about.”

On the other side, middle school student Will Flanagan, who goes downtown nearly every Friday afternoon, emphasized in an e-mail interview how much Friday afternoons mean to students.

“Walking downtown gives us the sense of freedom” from the highly regimented daily routine of a middle schooler, Flanagan said.  “The only other time we see everyone is at lunch, so walking after school is like an extension of lunch.”

“I think the town of Holliston is going to have to adapt to the amount of kids walking,” Flanagan said about the issues brought up by the e-mail.

Despite the emphasis in the e-mail on teaching students to respect businesses’ and private residents’ property, neither Mr. Botelho nor Mr. DiGiorgio pointed to student misbehavior as the impetus for sending the e-mail.

Azir did not have any complaints about student behavior either.  He mentioned that Central Café had experienced some past issues with student behavior, but he clarified that even those students who were irresponsible then have matured subsequently.  And he has no problems with recent students.

Some “try to be fresh, but that is normal for their age,” said Azir.  “Most of them are good kids,” he added, and “they are more than welcome” to socialize at Central Café.

Middle school student Brad Wolfson, who personally goes downtown just about every week, shares Azir’s laissez-faire attitude, reporting a total lack of trouble in the downtown area.  He said that his family did not initiate a conversation with him about the e-mail sent by the police and the administration.

“I don’t know why they sent it, because everything seems to be safe,” Wolfson said.

The police department and the RAMS administration apparently do not feel the same way.  In addition to sending out the e-mail, the town is seeking to reduce Friday afternoon congestion by negotiating with the Hopkinton YMCA to provide a cheap Friday afternoon program available to students.

Although Mr. DiGiorgio mentioned plans for increased police visibility on Friday afternoons, he called such tactics only a “Band-Aid” solution; only the existence of opportunities that are more attractive to students than going downtown can fix the problem at its core, a view that Mr. Botelho shares.  Mr. DiGiorgio believes that, in that respect, the YMCA program will be a success, because it is physically removed from the middle school and because the YMCA works with kids so often.

The YMCA’s program would be based primarily around athletic activities, and their facility will be useable year-round.  There “would be outdoor activities, but they have an indoor facility as well,” said Mr. DiGiorgio.

According to Mr. DiGiorgio, the program is supposed to roll out on November 1, although there may be delays due to busing issues.  The program’s low cost, between $5 and $10 according to Mr. DiGiorgio’s estimate, will serve as an additional incentive to parents.

The YMCA program is meant to be a short-term pilot program, the ultimate goal being a facility in Holliston run at least in part by the Holliston Parks and Recreation department.  Parks and Rec offered such a program years ago, but funding for it was cut.

Mr. DiGiorgio hypothesized that the facility would “be used as an after school program, but also as a community outreach center” and would be a point of pride for Holliston.

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