ST. PETERSBURG — Nicholas Andre is a good student. The junior plays center on St. Petersburg High's football team, holds a 3.2 grade point average and has never been in trouble with the law.
Leaving school on a recent Thursday, though, he felt like a criminal after crossing Fifth Avenue N. There, on the other side of the road, a St. Petersburg police officer handed him a $62.50 jaywalking ticket.
Nicholas, 16, admits he darted mid block across 15 mph traffic. But he was taken aback by the ticket, which is more than the $50 a month he makes mowing his family's lawn.
Nicholas and his parents are upset that the school was targeted for traffic enforcement. Much like a speed trap on a highway, other jaywalking teens got to their cars and drove off as officers cited a few students at a time.
"It's ridiculous," said Leah Robertson, whose son, Michael, 17, also got a ticket. "In my entire life, and I'm 45, I have never known one person to get ticketed for jaywalking."
Police wrote 19 tickets during that April 7 sweep, most for pedestrian violations but a few for drivers for violations like speeding or failure to yield to a pedestrian.
They weren't sympathetic to complaints. A little tough education is necessary, they say, considering local roads are ranked among the nation's most dangerous. So far this year, there have been 11 accidents and 21 deaths involving pedestrians on Tampa Bay roads, according to news reports. There were also seven bicyclists killed and another seven injured in accidents with cars, according to reports.
While there has yet to be a serious or fatal accident outside a local high school, St. Petersburg police are not waiting for that to happen, said police spokesman Michael Puetz. They are focusing on educating pedestrians at problem areas, and schools fit the bill.
"The goal is to get (students) to use the crosswalks," Puetz said. "The problem with high schools is you're dealing with a high volume of kids all getting out of school at the same time, and because it's a school zone, traffic gets congested. It's easy for one driver to see the pedestrian crossing but the other driver in the adjoining lane won't readily detect them because their view is blocked by the stopped vehicle."
Puetz said the police stood outside the school on March 14 warning students and drivers. Instead of tickets, they handed out 33 fliers explaining the law. That should have been ample warning, he said. Police did not consult with the principal or school resource officers.
Gibbs High School, which faces busy U.S. 19, also was targeted. In December, officers handed out 98 warning fliers, then returned in January. Then they handed out 48 citations to pedestrians and six more for vehicles, Puetz said.
The pedestrian enforcement is paid for by grant money that law enforcement agencies in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco recently received to help educate motorists and pedestrians. The grant money can be used however the agencies see fit. The St. Petersburg Police Department received $50,000 of the $430,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation. The department is using the money to pay for educational fliers and overtime for officers.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office received a $20,000 grant, and is also using the money for fliers and overtime. But deputies have yet to issue any jaywalking tickets, said spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.
So far, deputies have targeted pedestrians and motorists around busy stretches of Gulf Boulevard and of U.S. 19 in the Innisbrook and Lealman areas, she said.
"If the behavior persists and we have several contacts with the person, then it is possible that they will get a ticket. But our goal is one of education," Pasha said.
As for Nicholas, he and his mother plan to fight the ticket in traffic court. They'll tell the judge it isn't fair that he was singled out when so many other students who were jaywalking weren't ticketed.
Their defense may or may not work. But the police department's attempt to change Nicholas' behavior already has produced results.
He said he won't jaywalk again.
Staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com