Seeking fun and challenging playground equipment for the children, the… (Michael S. Williamson/THE…)
The playground structure is brand new and a child’s dream: soaring metal beams and a tantalizing spider web of climbing net. It sits outside Stratford Landing Elementary School, but all the students can do is stare at it from afar.
Behind the yellow caution tape fettering the apparatus are what parents describe as reams of bureaucratic red tape threatening the equipment, which was built with $35,000 from countless PTA silent auctions and bake sales.
Although parents worked with the Fairfax County Public Schools facilities department, purchased the equipment, hired a contractor and had the playground ready for recess, the school system suddenly deemed the play equipment too dangerous. Since Nov. 30 it has been off-limits, parents say.
Never mind that the same equipment is installed at more than 1,200 parks and schools across the country, including a public park in the county.
“We have $35,000 wrapped up in caution tape,” said Eleanor Whitaker, mother of second- and sixth-graders at Stratford Landing, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, near Mount Vernon.
What began as an effort to make recess more enjoyable for kids quickly evolved into a feud between parents and school officials.
Parents say the kids just want to have fun. Officials say the school system wants to avoid potential lawsuits should a child be injured on the equipment. According to statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 200,000 children visit emergency rooms annually after playground accidents.
The facilities department says the new equipment must go. But to make amends, Fairfax is offering to revamp the Stratford Landing playground, using about $135,000 from the county’s coffers.
“Funding a new playground is costing taxpayer money,” Whitaker said. “It would be a tremendous waste of money to pull the equipment out.”
Stratford Landing’s principal did not return calls seeking comment. County school officials said the equipment doesn’t meet strict requirements.
“Unfortunately, the playground equipment purchased by the PTA does not meet FCPS safety standards,” school system spokesman John Torre said. “We are currently working with school officials to consider options to upgrade and renovate the entire school playground.”
The project started last year before summer break. The PTA — having raised funds to expand the playground for a school that had grown to 870 students — asked for guidance from Fairfax’s facilities department. The PTA says the county provided the parents with literature about school playground construction procedures and catalogues from approved vendors.
With input from students, the PTA bought a climbing obstacle developed by Landscape Structures, a Minnesota-based playground equipment manufacturer. The group chose the popular Evos system, with arching spans of tubes that more closely resemble a modernist sculpture than the wooden platform playground equipment of yore.
The PTA then hired Isaac Sparks, a construction manager for Sparks @ Play, a playgrounds specialist based in Owings Mills, Md., to install the structure. By early November, the students were romping all over it.
Soon, however, a county playground inspector was on the scene, declaring the structure a hazard.
In a written report, the inspector found that among other safety issues, parts of the structure were too tall. One part of the equipment is 94 inches above the ground, 10 inches higher than the school system allows. The report said that deviating from the school system’s playground protocols “places users at an increased life-safety risk” and that the Evos system could lead to head injuries and neck entrapment. “The equipment should be removed from the property,” according to the report.
Fred Caslavka, Landscape Structures’ chief financial officer, said the Evos system is safe, fun and popular with children.
“It is one of our more popular designs,” Caslavka said. “I’m actually quite surprised that Fairfax County says it’s not safe. I’m totally confident it complies with all the standards out there.”
According to company data, there are 1,255 Evos play structures across the country. One is in Fairfax, at Arrowbrook Centre Park.
Sparks, who helped oversee the Evos installation at Arrowbrook, said two are installed in Arlington County, at the Charles Drew Community Center and Mace Park. Officials with the Arlington school system said there is another at Oakridge Elementary. Sparks called the Evos system the standard playground equipment for D.C. public schools.
In an e-mail to PTA members, David Bennett, a Fairfax schools facilities management employee, explained the rationale for removing the equipment.
“As for allowing the equipment at Stratford Landing, it would be setting a new standard,” Bennett wrote. “How could we deny another school or PTA the same playground equipment if we allowed it at [Stratford Landing]?”