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Prompted by teen's death, Pinellas takes closer look at bus stops

PINELLAS PARK

Bundled in jackets and clutching yellow notepads, Pinellas County school officials stood at several bus stops Monday morning and watched.

At 66th Street and 70th Avenue N, they saw many students dropped off by parents, but others rode bikes or walked — often darting across busy 66th Street to wait for buses.

Following the death of a Pinellas Park High junior who was hit by a car trying to reach an "arterial" bus stop, district officials are trying to glean information on how to make the stops safer.

"We're trying to get a sense of what's happening," said associate superintendent Michael Bessette, as he stood at the 66th Street and 70th Avenue N stop where 17-year-old Nora Hernandez-Huapilla was killed just before the winter break.

The arterial bus stops are part of a new system for students who go to school outside their residential zones. The plan intended for parents to drop students off at the stops, which are on busy intersections along main streets. Roughly 12,000 students use the stops, up from 3,000 during the last school year.

Superintendent Julie Janssen announced last week that a task force would study the bus system and a notice sent to parents reminding them of the policy: "Parents are expected to transport to/from the bus stop."

Bessette said Monday that the word "transport" did not necessarily mean by vehicle. It could also mean parents giving the okay for students to travel by bike, or identifying a safe walking route.

"In reality, there are many ways kids are transported places," he said. "I don't think that's limited to parents driving."

Bessette said district officials planned to visit 28 different stops throughout the rest of the week between Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg High to get a representative sampling of arterial stops across the district.

Among the information collected Monday:

How many students were walking? How many were riding their bikes? How many were being dropped off by their parents?

How many were showing up on time? How many were late?

Were any crossing the street against the traffic lights? Were any running?

"It was basically to list anything that we felt didn't look right and may be an issue," Bessette said.

Parents said an accident like Miss Hernandez-Huapilla's seemed inevitable. The teen was in the crosswalk, but darted into traffic against the light.

"I've been waiting for something like this to happen," said Vicki Dorn, 44, who was dropping off her 15-year-old daughter, Christina.

Dorn said she drops off her daughter as often as she can, but when that's not an option, she's happy Christina's route doesn't involve crossing the street.

Largo High School sophomore Brent Beroney isn't as lucky. He rides his bike eight blocks, chains it up and crosses 66th to wait on his bus.

"I feel safe," Beroney said, "as long as I keep my eyes on the road."

Before one of the last busses arrived, a van pulled into the parking lot of Cash America Pawn. It is next to the bus stop and one of the areas parents drop off students.

"We love you," and "R.I.P." were painted on a window of the van, along with "Nora" inside a heart.

It was the Hernandez-Huapilla family, dropping off Nora's siblings for another school day. They declined comment, but kids surrounded them as they walked onto the bus.

Nora's brother Juan, 16, was wearing a screen-printed T-shirt. It was white, and in the middle was a picture of his smiling sister.

A few yards from where kids boarded the bus, a makeshift memorial sat by the side of the road. Recent flowers were packed among stuffed animals and other keepsakes. One card offered condolences to the family.

"God works in mysterious ways sometimes," the card read, "and I believe He wanted your little Angel to come home."

Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report.

Prompted by teen's death, Pinellas takes closer look at bus stops 01/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 4, 2010 10:28pm]
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