By Anya Bochman
West Orange High School freshman Soham Bhatnagar became inspired to make a meaningful change to his environment when he was only in the eighth grade at Liberty Middle School. He spent countless hours to have the stretch of road from Mt. Pleasant Avenue from the Livingston border to Kelly Drive (where the middle school is located) named a designated school zone.
Bhatnagar, who had received the West Orange community Mayor’s Award in 2018 as a result of his middle school efforts on behalf of traffic safety, was spurred into action after learning of a number of glaring safety concerns in the area.
In 2018, Patricia Villarosa, a teacher at Washington Elementary School, was struck and killed by a car as she was walking to a Board of Education meeting at West Orange High School, crossing Pleasant Valley Way.
Only two years earlier, in 2016, Juliet Bergen, of West Orange, was walking in the area of Mount Pleasant Avenue and Kelly Drive, when she, too, was struck by a car and killed. The site of the accident was just a few blocks from Liberty Middle School, and Bhatnagar feels that the event did not get proper media attention and reforms to ensure pedestrian safety.
“At the time, I was looking for things I could make a positive change in,” Bhatnagar said. “When I heard [of Bergen’s death], I thought ‘This is not okay.’ I cross [at the site] to pick my sister up from school; the crossing guard leaves at 4 p.m. and then we are alone. I decided designating the area as a school zone would be my primary goal.”
Bhatnagar began his efforts by tackling a blind spot behind Liberty Middle School that he felt put joggers and pedestrians in danger. He set out to have appropriate traffic signals installed.
Encouraged by West Orange HS principal Hayden Moore, Bhatnagar started a petition in February, gathering almost 400 signatures in five days. He brought the petition to the attention of West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, who was impressed with the student support and agreed that changes needed to be made.
Bhatnagar learned of Bergen’s death from Liberty Middle School principal Robert Klemt, who had been trying to designate the area as a school zone since 2005.
“When I learned about this accident, to say I was surprised would be an understatement,” Bhatnagar said. “I was shocked as it seemed that no action was taken afterwards.”
After starting another petition and taking his concerns to the state level by communicating with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), he finally had success after petitioning the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, where he spoke at length to officials who offered their help.
After Bhatnagar contacted the NJDOT again, the area was finally designated as a school zone, with the town council voting unanimously in favor.
As a result of his dedicated efforts, Bhatnagar was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award, which recognizes Americans of all ages who volunteer significant amounts of their time in service to their communities. The award is sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).