Saturday, May 26, 2018
Public safety

Boy, 14, hit by van near school in Spring Hill

SPRING HILL — Tina Giglio stood in her driveway Thursday morning and shook her head. She pointed to a spot near the road where blood was still smeared across the dirt.

What had happened hours earlier at the intersection of Landover Boulevard and Tillery Road, she and neighbors said, was inevitable. Derek Kruis, a 14-year-old from Spring Hill, was run over by a van after the boy darted into the middle of the road, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The eighth-grader, who is expected to recover from his injuries, was on his way to Explorer K-8 School.

Kruis lives on Leland Street, about three-fourths of a mile from the scene. Until this year, neighbors said, he walked each day to the end of his block, hopped on a bus and rode it to school. Now, he walks all the way to Explorer.

Last summer, a reluctant Hernando County School Board, looking for ways to trim a tight budget, made the controversial decision to eliminate bus service for students who live within 2 miles of school. The district is not reimbursed by the state for so-called courtesy bus service and saved about $800,000.

The decision forced hundreds of additional students, including Kruis, to walk or ride bikes to school. Because of its location and size, Explorer was among the schools most affected by the decision. The school of more than 1,700 students lost 10 buses.

Principal John Stratton estimates that about 200 Explorer students walked or rode bicycles to school last year. He said that number is now roughly 600.

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt, who recommended the bus cut, acknowledged on Thursday the simple, unnerving math: More student pedestrians increases the odds of an accident.

"But there are kids who have been walking to school for years and we've had problems with things happening to them," Blavatt said. "There's always a potential for someone to get injured, especially in this case where it sounds like he was doing what kids do, running across without looking. All we can do is take every precaution we can."

Several neighbors say the district hasn't done nearly enough.

"I knew a kid was going to get hit," said Andrew Harding, who lives in an apartment near Thursday's collision.

Harding and other neighbors disapproved of the school district's decision to eliminate the bus service and also questioned why that area of Landover, where motorists frequently travel 40 mph to 50 mph, doesn't have a crossing guard or at least a crosswalk.

"It's frustrating," Harding said. "I knew it was going to happen."

Blavatt said he plans to visit the neighborhood with his safety coordinator and Sheriff's Office officials in the coming days to see what, if anything, the district can do to make the area safer.

Kruis was struck one block east of Explorer's rear gate. That entrance until this year was designated only for emergency access and for pedestrians.

But the volume of car traffic at Explorer's main entrance on Northcliffe Boulevard increased dramatically this year due to the courtesy bus cut, creating gridlock conditions. As a result, the district, with the support of the Sheriff's Office, opened the back entrance to car traffic, and county officials recently granted a request to keep the gate open permanently.

Some residents in the area fought the move. Michael Kumicich, who lives near the corner of Jason and Tillery roads, was among those who objected.

"I told (county officials) it was just going to be a matter of time," Kumicich said, "before a student is hit and killed."

Jeremy Witzel has lived across the street from Kruis and his parents for the last six years. Witzel described the teenager as happy and talkative; he often plays football and baseball in his front yard with other neighborhood kids.

Witzel, who drives his daughters to Explorer each morning, was shaken at the news about Thursday's accident, but not surprised that it had happened. He disagreed with the school district's decision to reduce bus service from the beginning and hopes the tragedy will prompt a change.

Board member Dianne Bonfield, the lone board dissenter on the bus service issue, did not take the opportunity Thursday to say, "I told you so." She did, however, express hope that the board would look at the budget each year with hopes of bringing back the bus service.

James Albert Baird, 20, was driving the van that struck Kruis when the boy stepped into the road. Baird was still at the scene when Kumicich came home Thursday morning. He was not charged with any traffic offenses

"He was pretty shaken up," Kumicich recalled. "He said, 'I tried to avoid him.' I said, 'Don't feel bad about this. It's not your fault. It was bound to happen.' "

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Reach John Woodrow Cox at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected]

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