SPRING HILL — Laura Mingione has visited the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's website many times over the years to find out where sexual offenders live in her neighborhood.
But when the mother of a 10-year-old Deltona Elementary student sat down at the computer last Saturday and typed in the school's address, the map that popped up on the screen alarmed her.
Fifty-eight dots, each representing a registered sex offender, were clustered in a 2-mile radius around the Deltona campus in Spring Hill.
To Mingione, who recently moved to Spring Hill, it's a compelling reason why the school district should not have eliminated courtesy bus service for students who live within 2 miles of campus.
"We're dangling these kids out there like pieces of meat and there's a hungry pack of dogs, and eventually somebody's going to bite," Mingione said. "I don't think (school officials) thought of all the consequences this decision is going to have."
The decision, though, has been made, at least for this year.
The School Board voted weeks ago to eliminate the courtesy bus service to help bridge what at one point was an $11 million budget gap. The service, used by some 2,400 students last year, cost about $800,000, and the district is not reimbursed by the state for the expense.
The district has to use limited resources to keep teachers in the schools, and parents need to take a more active role in getting them there, said superintendent Bryan Blavatt. Both Blavatt and the School Board have fielded plenty of pleas in recent weeks from parents worried about traffic, dogs — and sex offenders.
"Regrettably, there's nothing we can do to preclude these people from living in the community," Blavatt said. "When there is no school, I'm sure these kids, unless you confine them to your own yard, are under the same constraints."
As parents consider how their children will get to school, the FDLE website is a valuable tool, said Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis.
The site allows visitors to enter an address and a radius between a quarter mile and 5 miles. The results can be viewed on a map or as a list that includes a photo of the offender and the criminal conviction that required them to register with the state.
Parents should note an important distinction when perusing the list, Nienhuis said.
The designation of "offender" results from convictions for attempting or committing crimes ranging from possession of child pornography to procuring a child younger than 18 for prostitution. This designation is also given for lewd and lascivious acts with a child. That can include an 18-year-old man who has consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend.
A sexual "predator" has been convicted at least once for sexual battery on a child or for repeat sexual offender convictions.
"We want to make sure people are well educated and understand the risks," Nienhuis said.
Florida law forbids offenders or predators convicted of certain sex crimes that occurred after October 2004, and that involved a victim younger than 16, to live within 1,000 feet of any school, day care center, park, or playground.
In other cases, an offender or predator still on probation may be under similar residency restrictions set by the courts.
Nienhuis urged parents to reinforce the "stranger danger" but also to reinforce the traffic safety rules.
"It's probably a more emotional thing for a parent, but their children are more likely to get hit by a car than get abducted by a stranger," he said.
The Sheriff's Office is helping the district place crossing guards at 14 busy intersections to help get students across the street safely but also serve as extra pairs of eyes. Deputies will be patrolling areas around schools to keep an eye on students, Nienhuis said.
"I've told the commanders that getting kids to school safe is a zero-fail mission," he said.
Mingione, the Deltona mom, considers herself fortunate. She lives just inside of 2 miles from the campus. Her work schedule as a Publix customer service associate will allow her to drive her son some days. The other days, her father and grandmother will fill in as chauffeur.
"But what about the parents that are not in my position?" she asked. "I'm not asking them to bring all the busing back. I'm asking them to reconsider it for the younger kids."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.