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School bus route cuts pose little danger to Hernando County students

When Bobby Berner learned Thursday there would be no bus to take his three children to Westside Elementary School this year, he immediately turned to his 11-year-old daughter, Jessica.

"Looks like I'll be driving you to school every day," said Berner, 37, at his home in Spring Hill.

"Too many predators," he explained. "I don't let my kids walk anywhere."

I understand, of course. Sheriff Al Nienhuis, talking about his office's responsibility to train new crossing guards, called it a "zero-fail mission." If that's true for law enforcement — that slip-ups can't even be contemplated when it comes to kids' safety — it's even more true for parents.

And it's difficult to deny that the potential for danger will increase this year now that the Hernando School Board decided to bus only children living farther than 2 miles from their schools.

Yes, Hernando has its share of registered sex offenders. And though car traffic in Hernando doesn't compare to some other nearby counties, we are part of the Tampa Bay area, recently named one of the country's most dangerous urban areas for pedestrians by Transportation for America, a nonprofit safety advocacy organization.

But here's why I think the board absolutely made the right decision to do away with these short routes:

Eliminating so-called courtesy busing, which is not subsidized by the state, will save the district $800,000 — enough to pay for a lot of teachers.

The over-hyped danger of sexual assaults and the more realistic hazards of speeding vehicles can be managed with a little thought and cooperation. Parents in most surrounding counties have done it for years.

And if more kids do end up walking, and I'm guessing that a lot of the younger ones will get rides, it would be good for them. They might even find they like it.

I don't mean to single out Berner, because a lot of parents feel the same way. But he was the one I happened to talk to, so his children's route to school was the one I checked out.

There are sidewalks on all but a short stretch of a quiet road. The route goes along Spring Hill Drive, but doesn't cross it. At 1.4 miles, it would be a hike for his 6-year-old son but probably manageable for an 11-year old. On a bike, it would be a breeze.

How did people get the idea that every other house might contain a child-nabbing monster?

Mostly through a few high-profile cases, including the abductions and murders of Jennifer Odom in Pasco County in 1993 and Jessica Lunsford in Citrus County in 2005. Considering the horror of those crimes, increased awareness is justified; protecting our children to the point of suffocation is not.

Violent crime against teenagers has declined by more than half in the past two decades, according to the U.S. Justice Department. And in more than 20 years of working for this newspaper in Hernando, I don't recall a single child here being snatched and killed by a stranger. Neither does my boss, Mike Konrad. Nor does Chief Deputy Mike Maurer, a 23-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office.

The federally created website saferoutesinfo.org advocates forming "bike trains" and "walking school buses" — groups of kids that neighborhood adults take turns leading — to further reduce the chance of traffic accidents and abductions. I think of child molesters as secretive and cowardly. It's hard to imagine one wading into such a crowd.

Would some paths to school be unsafe even with an adult chaperone? Maybe. Which is why the district made the right call last week to add a few bus routes for children who, for example, would have otherwise had to cross U.S. 19.

Compare that approach to the old one, which transportation director Linda Smith described as, "You call, we haul."

Busing was available for every student, in other words, and Westside principal Nancy Kesselring could watch children board just up the street from the school, then disembark moments later.

"Some kids are too pampered these days," Kesselring said.

She walked to school as a child and doesn't remember it as a hardship. Neither do I. Not even walking to middle school, which was a couple of miles from home, during a bus drivers' strike.

My friends and I formed our own walking bus. The kids who were allowed to stay up to watch Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show got a chance to tell the rest of us what we had missed. We stopped at a corner store to buy candy, which we resold at school for a huge profit. We cut through fields and woods we previously didn't know existed. We started walking in February, but even after the strike was settled in the spring, we kept walking.

School bus route cuts pose little danger to Hernando County students 08/20/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 19, 2011 10:25pm]
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