Three months after a 17-year-old girl was killed while running across six lanes of traffic for a school bus, Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen is finally ready to call in the experts.
Janssen is expected to ask the School Board today to hire traffic experts from the University of South Florida to evaluate every arterial bus stop in the county. It's an idea long overdue on a safety issue affecting thousands of students.
Janssen pledged to launch a full investigation after Nora Hernandez-Huapilla died in the morning hours of Dec. 18. But the district stopped responding to some questions once the family announced its intent to sue. And Janssen created an advisory committee of parents, students and district employees whose recommendations will also be given to the board today. The committee, which met three times, is calling for better communication with parents, safety education for students, better collaboration between the district and other government transportation agencies, and tougher enforcement when bus drivers violate rules.
Those are laudable goals, but a less than impressive response when a child has died. The question Janssen should be examining is how can the district design a safe transportation system for students who attend schools outside their neighborhood zones.
The more than 10,000 students using arterial bus service — those who attend magnet schools, other special programs or have decided to stay in a high school far from home — must make their way to bus stops on major roads. The problems became clear from the beginning of the school year when more students began relying on the service instead of attending their neighborhood school. Students have to cross heavy traffic, often in the dark. What's more, the school district did a poor job of communicating the exact location of stops and acknowledged that too many students had been assigned to some stops. Reports of crowds of students dashing through traffic got the attention of district officials, who went out to review the stops and, they said, correct the problems.
Yet three months later, Pinellas Park High School junior Hernandez-Huapilla was killed crossing 66th Street N to make it to her bus idling nearby. District employees again were dispatched to review the bus stops. But that's not enough when thousands of lives are at stake every day.
The School Board should approve Janssen's recommendation and hire USF. That team of experts should be asked to evaluate the entire arterial system — not just its stops. The school district needs to determine how, or if, arterial busing can be delivered safely in a county notorious for its heavy traffic.