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Long before killing of Somer Thompson, Tampa Bay parents feared letting kids walk to school alone

Some take the bus home, others get driven by their parents or walk.

But you won't see many kids leaving Cannella Elementary School alone. It just doesn't happen. Not anymore.

"I see parents walking with their children in the morning and the afternoon," said parent Rhonda Hodgdon, whose 11-year-old son attended the school in suburban North Tampa last year. "We're almost shocked when we see a kid by themselves."

Tampa Bay parents and teachers say the days of kids walking alone to school ended long before the death of 7-year-old Somer Thompson, who left her school in Orange Park on Monday and never got home. Her body was found two days later in a Georgia landfill.

Districts and families have been raising their guard at least since the death of Jessica Lunsford, whose 2005 kidnapping and murder in Homosassa prompted new security measures in schools.

These days, if students must travel by foot, they do so in watchful packs. Schools have coached them since the early grades on what to do if a strange adult approaches, said Cannella guidance counselor Gigi Gregory.

"Run," she said. "Run like the dickens. Run to your neighbors, or run to a house."

Cannella kids aren't even allowed to travel from their classrooms to the school library alone.

"I can tell you if we saw a really young student walking home alone, we would definitely do something about it," Gregory said.

Parents say they're all too familiar with the state Web site that finds 73 sexual offenders or predators living within 3 miles of Somer Thompson's school in Orange Park, a Jacksonville suburb. No suspects have been found in Somer's death, but Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler said Thursday that police have questioned more than 155 registered sex offenders in the surrounding area so far.

The number of offenders near Somer's school isn't unusual, even for middle-income neighborhoods like North Tampa, Land O'Lakes and Dunedin. There are 58 offenders living near Cannella Elementary, 24 near Lake Myrtle Elementary in sparsely populated Pasco County, and 110 living within 3 miles of Dunedin Elementary in Pinellas.

"I basically look it up online myself," said Bonnie Desmond, whose children attend Dunedin elementary and middle schools.

She moved to the town to put her kids within a few blocks of school after losing bus service in Clearwater. They walk to school with a large group of kids and get picked up in the afternoon by teenage siblings.

"There's a serious concern whenever your kids are out of your sight," Desmond said.

Parent Karen Mariscal had no idea there were so many sexual offenders in the area surrounding her daughter's school. But she always drives 7-year-old Hannah to Dunedin Elementary, just to keep her safe.

"I see those little kids walking home all the time by themselves and I wonder, 'How can those parents let them do that?' " Mariscal said. "Anything could happen."

Pasco guidance counselor John Thomas said teachers at Lake Myrtle Elementary constantly teach students about "stranger danger" and the need to be careful between home and school.

But Carol Conaway, a vice president of the Florida PTA , said schools need to prepare kids for threats closer to home, too.

"The majority of children are not hurt by a stranger," she said. "Much more frequently, the perpetrator is someone they know."

The Tampa Police Department assigns two detectives to a unit charged with keeping track of sexual offenders and predators in the city, said spokeswoman Andrea Davis. ("Predator'' usually refers to a severe or repeat sex offender.)

She said school resource officers go out of their way to notify parents and teachers when a predator arrives in the neighborhood. But not every offender on the state's Web site poses a threat to children.

"Most offenders and predators who have targeted children, they're not going to be allowed to live near a bus stop or school," Davis said.

Still, some neighborhoods are tougher than others. Last year Rhonda Hodgdon had to move her son 4 miles across Tampa from Cannella to Oak Grove Elementary on N Armenia Avenue.

In doing so, she moved him from a neighborhood with 58 sexual offenders to one with 235.

On Thursday, for the first time ever, she let her 11-year-old walk home on his own.

"And of course I'm standing out there watching for him," Hodgdon said. "It's literally not a full block away, but you still watch. Because you just don't feel safe."

Times staff writers Jeffrey Solochek, Jared Leone, Donna Winchester and researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Long before killing of Somer Thompson, Tampa Bay parents feared letting kids walk to school alone 10/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 12:35pm]
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