OZONA — Bikers on the Pinellas Trail, beware if you're passing Ozona Elementary School between 8:15 and 8:30 on weekday mornings. The trail is awash with young children then, wearing bike helmets, most on their own small bicycles, and a few on tandem bikes with parents.
A significant portion of the 800 students at Ozona Elementary use the Pinellas Trail to get to and from school. The school, located off Tampa Road and Alt. U.S. 19, is one of the few in Pinellas County located along the trail.
"Parents really enjoy riding the trail with their children," said principal Kerry Apuzzo, "and if the kids come in happy and ready to go, it makes the day much better."
The students come from neighborhoods in and around Ozona, including Forest Grove and Wexford, as well as from Crystal Beach and downtown Palm Harbor.
"No bus transportation is available to students living within two miles of a school, "said Apuzzo, "so students from parts of Palm Harbor come on their bikes."
The sight of cheerful kids pedaling their way to school doesn't tell the whole story of the trail riders. Apuzzo said she and her staff work regularly to educate parents and their children about trail safety.
They hold two meetings a year for parents and kids — one at the opening of school and another as a reminder in the second semester. The emphasis is on wearing helmets, avoiding the edges of the trail, staying to the right so faster bikers can pass on the left, and the importance of walking in groups.
Apuzzo said she puts articles on trail safety in school newsletters sent home to parents, and calls to alert them as concerns arise. She's also trying to get someone from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to come in and assist in the mornings.
Maureen Grab, a physical education teacher and mother of four former students at Ozona, greets the children as they pull up to the bike racks. She usually is the first to spot potential problems.
"Freeze!" she calls out to children playing on the grass near the bike racks, waiting for the bell to ring. The word signals the approach of bikers, and the children must remain "frozen" until the bikers pass.
"The kids are well-trained," she said, but admitted they are still vulnerable to mishaps.
Adult bikers are among her concerns. One mishap occurred recently when a child was nicked on the hip by a fast-moving biker.
"They often don't realize how unpredictable children can be," she said of the adults. "Young kids are easily distracted."
Another issue is the terrain on the eastern side of the trail, where sharp rocks drop down to a creek. Last year, Grab said, a 7-year-old swerved, lost control of her bike, and plunged over the rocks into the creek.
"She was fine," said Grab, "but I had to climb down there and get her out."
Adult Pinellas Trail riders often avoid that 15 minutes of high activity in the morning, she said. For those who ride by at that time, there's a warning posted as they approach the school — a green plastic man with the word "Slow" emblazoned on his shirt.
"I know these kids by name and I'm a parent myself," said Grab, who has been at the school since 1995. "I want them to be safe and have a good day."