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Task force to study bus stop safety in wake of teen's death

LARGO —Pinellas school officials will be monitoring traffic safety at a handful of "arterial" bus stops when classes resume Monday, including the bus stop a Pinellas Park High junior was trying to reach when she was struck by a car and killed.

Superintendent Julie Janssen announced Wednesday plans to create a task force to study the controversial new bus system, which places "arterial" stops for thousands of students attending schools outside of their residential zones on busy intersections along main streets.

The district has been reviewing the busing system since it took effect in August and after parents complained about a number of issues, including safety.

Janssen said Wednesday the death of Nora Huapilla shows not all parents are following school policy that they are expected to transport students to and from arterial bus stops. The 17-year-old, who walked to her stop, was hit by a car earlier this month as she ran against traffic to catch a school bus.

School officials will send out a notice reminding parents that school policy states: "Parents are expected to transport to/from the bus stop."

Janssen stressed she was not pointing fingers at parents who don't follow the rule. "This is not a criticism of anyone, but sometimes it happens," she said.

But at least one Pinellas school board member said the busing system simply might have to be changed.

"Arterial busing works in many places," said chairwoman Janet Clark. "But in Pinellas, where it is so dense and with the heavy traffic we have 24/7, it may not be the best choice for our county."

Last year, 3,500 students in high school alone used those stops. But this year, as the district continued its return to neighborhood schools, it allowed high school students to remain in their existing schools on condition that they find their own transportation or use arterial busing. The number using arterial stops swelled to roughly 11,000.

The school district under­estimated the number of students who would use the arterial bus stops and did not continue to assess those stops as routing deadlines neared, said a 15-page transportation report released the week of Nora's death.

Nevertheless, the report concluded: "In this review, necessary system improvements were identified but no substantiation of incompetence and/or neglect on the part of personnel was found."

The new task force will study the arterial bus stop locations, examining how the stops were selected and questions about the locations, Janssen said.

No members have been named and the size of the task force is still being discussed, she said. Students who use the arterial system and their parents will be invited to join. The names of the task force members could be announced as early as next week.

The task force will have two months to complete a report. All recommendations will be evaluated to determine cost impacts and then forwarded to the School Board.

"You put a plan in place and then you need to see how it is working," Janssen said.

As students head back to school on Monday, district supervisors will observe how they arrive at the arterial bus stops.

Supervisors will pay special attention to the bus stop at 70th Avenue and 66th Street where Nora was struck by a car on the last day of school before winter break. At one point, 87 students from 12 high schools had bus stops there.

Janssen said two school officials will likely be present at the stop, including a grief counselor or an assistant superintendent.

Nora's parents complained to the school district about her bus driver, who they claimed would not wait for students crossing the bustling intersection. She attended Pinellas Park High along with her brother Juan, 16, but their zoned school is Dixie Hollins.

Janssen said she has not yet met with Nora's family. However, one of the district's bilingual social workers recently visited the family and school officials arranged for the family to attend free counseling with a social service agency connected to the Juvenile Welfare Board.

Grief counselors also will be at Pinellas Park High on Monday.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Task force to study bus stop safety in wake of teen's death 12/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 12:20am]

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