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Officials stress safety
Concerns about the safety of children walking to schools in Ceres - following Wednesday's fatal crash near Mae Hensley Junior High and a second incident near Central Valley High School where kids were bumped by a car Thursday morning - drove Police Chief Art deWerk to appeal to the public for more heightened awareness for all drivers and pedestrians.

DeWerk joined City Council members and the superintendent of the Ceres Unified School District for a Thursday afternoon press conference to address the growing concern about student safety.

"This will go down as one of the worst tragedies in the history of our city...enough to shake this community to its core," said deWerk.

During the conference, deWerk announced a second incident which occurred Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. Two Central Valley High School students sustained minor injuries when a Modesto school teacher driving on Service Road struck them in a crosswalk. All were able to walk back to classes.

"It was that incident ... that made us decide that enough was enough, that we needed to go public," said deWerk. "We needed to make a big deal out of this. You can call it coincidence - we don't care what it was. It is a very, very dangerous trend that is going on and the public must be careful."

The chief said "it is time everybody wakes up and starts driving safely, especially around school zones."

DeWerk urged parents and children to make no assumptions about safety and be vigilant whether walking or driving.

"Traffic enforcement is a priority for my organization," said deWerk, who quickly acknowledged that "police themselves cannot control the actions of every motorist or can they prevent every incident, every collision."

DeWerk said part of drivers' inattentiveness is due to devices which provide more opportunities for drivers to be distracted. He calls on drivers to do away with distractions of cell and smart phones, sound systems and pets and "focus on the task of driving."

"We're in a very technologically oriented society and it's following us into our vehicles," deWerk observed

The chief shared concerns about recent history of pedestrian-related accidents in Ceres. In 2007 Ceres ranked the fifth highest out of 98 similar-sized California cities for pedestrian accidents involving children under 15. That prompted the city to apply for and receive grant funding in 2007 to give resources for additional traffic enforcement. As a result, he said, Ceres dropped to 16th out of 97 cities in 2008, then 34th in 2009.

"But it is still a totally unacceptable condition. If we aren't last on that list it isn't good enough."

Stanislaus County as a whole "may have a problem," he said, with a high rate of student pedestrian accidents; it ranks sixth in the state among similar-sized counties for a high incidence of youth pedestrian injury crashes.

Statewide about 5,000 pedestrians are killed each year and five times as more are injured.

CUSD Superintendent Scott Siegel said teachers in Ceres schools need to "do a better job of teaching children about the value of walking defensively, that you may have the right of way but be in danger of being hit by a vehicle."

Mayor Chris Vierra said he was saddened by the crash and issued his condolences to the family of Danielle Tarancon-Delon, 13, who was killed at Darwin Avenue and Fowler Road. The Mae Hensley Junior High School student was one of four struck by a Chevy pickup.

"I can assure you," said Vierra, "that the city and school district will work closely to make this community as safe as possible."

Sgt. Danny Vierra, who is the lead investigator in the Smyrna Park tragedy, said his agency has 35 probable witnesses who either saw or heard the crash. The investigation is being hampered, said deWerk, by a large amount of "rumors, disinformation and false assumptions." Contributing to that, he said, are social media, specifically the Modesto Bee and Facebook.

DeWerk spoke about how the tragedy impacted emergency personnel who tended to the girls after a pickup truck ran into and over them. He said all are "deeply affected" by the carnage and that many thought of their own children while rendering aid to those who were seriously hurt.

The chief accurately predicted that the crash would prompt calls from the community for speed enforcement. He said while concerns about speeding in residential areas is a legitimate concern, "in this particular incident there was an exceptional set of facts."

Sgt. Jose Berber said "the facts show speed enforcement probably couldn't have prevented this since it seems the driver ran the stop sign. We're trying to determine other factors."

"We're still doing an investigation to determine what happened," said Berber shortly after noon. "There are many more witnesses that need to be interviewed."

The speed of the vehicle has not been determined, he said.