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Family of teen killed while trying to catch her school bus may sue Pinellas County Schools

The family of a 17-year-old Pinellas Park girl who died while rushing to catch her school bus last month has signaled its intent to sue the Pinellas County School District.

Nora Hernandez-Huapilla died Dec. 18 after she ran into the path of an oncoming car on 66th Street. She was rushing to get to her idling school bus on 70th Avenue, but had to cross six busy lanes in the early morning dark.

The school district said Thursday it received a notice of claim from the family's attorney. The document is a required precursor to filing a lawsuit against a government agency.

Meanwhile, a district task force met to review Pinellas' system of "arterial" bus stops, designed to accommodate 12,000 students who attend schools outside their assigned zones. Nora was running to such a stop when hit.

Pinellas Park police said their investigation into her death is almost complete. But it's unlikely their conclusion will change: the driver wasn't at fault and won't be cited because the girl was crossing against the light.

But questions still surround the death of the teen, the third Pinellas student in five years to die along a busy street near a bus stop.

Does making kids gather so close to so much traffic make sense? And what did the district do about the family's complaints — made weeks before the accident — about her bus stop and bus driver?

• • •

Nora's family complained about school bus driver Marcea Mells-Wilson on Oct. 5.

The driver was impatient, they said, had left children behind and wouldn't even wait for the light to change so the kids could safely cross the street.

Nora's younger brother Juan, who still uses that bus stop, told the St. Petersburg Times that weeks before she died, Nora tripped and fell while running to the bus. Mells-Wilson left her behind.

After Nora's death, associate superintendent Michael Bessette said a supervisor had spoken to the driver about waiting for the kids "within reason," especially so they can cross 66th Street with the light.

Superintendent Julie Janssen also commented last month on the family's complaints about the driver:

"I don't know if it's true or not true. It's unfair for me to criticize either way," Janssen told the Times. "We will do (a) complete followup … to find out exactly what happened."

But Thursday district spokeswoman Andrea Zahn told the Times in an e-mail that: "there is no pending investigation involving (bus driver) Ms. Mells-Wilson, nor is any intended."

Janssen did not return a call for comment to explain the discrepancy. Zahn said the district would not comment further because the matter appears headed for litigation.

Zahn did say the driver the family complained about is now working a different high school route, but would not say why.

The teen's family declined to comment Thursday.

• • •

A new advisory group charged with studying controversial bus stops like Nora's met for the first time Thursday afternoon.

The use of "arterial" bus stops was significantly increased this school year to accommodate thousands of students who go to schools outside their residential zones. Nora, for example, was zoned to attend Dixie Hollins High, but instead chose to go to Pinellas Park High.

The 21-member group — which includes parents, students, principals and transportation professionals — will discuss how to make the system safer for students. It will meet twice in February and make recommendations to the superintendent on March 1.

• • •

Mells-Wilson, 32, was hired as school bus driver in October 1999. She graduated in 1994 from Pinellas Park High, the same school Nora was attending when she died.

She has received mostly positive evaluations, according to her personnel file. She's also been involved in several accidents, but not all were her fault.

In 2003, she was counseled after a verbal run-in with another bus driver who insulted her first, records show. Then in 2005, an Osceola High parent complained that the driver made "derogatory" comments to students to "shut" their mouths and was "very loud," records show. Mells-Wilson responded that students were too loud, unhappy with her decisions and that she's toning down her "naturally loud voice."

She received written warnings in 2001 and 2002 when she was found at fault in two minor accidents with no injuries. She was also involved in five other minor accidents from 2002 to 2006, records show, but none were deemed her fault.

Her personnel file does not contain any complaints about Mells-Wilson leaving children behind at bus stops.

In January 2009 she was praised by a district supervisor for "excellent driving skills." The year before, a supervisor wrote, Mells-Wilson is "smiling even in the tough times."

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

Family of teen killed while trying to catch her school bus may sue Pinellas County Schools 01/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 12:16am]
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