Nora Hernandez-Huapilla lost her life because she did not want to miss the school bus on the last day of classes before Christmas break. The 17-year-old made a tragic mistake Friday by trying to run through a red light across six lanes of traffic, and a driver did not see her in the early-morning darkness. But the Pinellas County School District is not without blame, and it needs to re-examine its busing system before another child is killed.
It is the school district that cobbled together a dangerous busing plan to avoid upsetting parents who wanted to keep their high school students in existing schools when the school assignment system was changed. It is the school district that assigned too many students to bus stops on major roads. And it is the school district that failed to adopt later high school starting times, police impatient school bus drivers and listen to warnings.
Pinellas School superintendent Julie Janssen is ultimately responsible, and she did not acquit herself well in the hours following Hernandez-Huapilla's death. She offered condolences, then let district transportation officials answer most of the questions and defended a system that is quickly becoming indefensible. She made the teen's death sound like collateral damage when she talked about locating bus stops along busy multilane roads.
"Those are decisions that parents make when they choose to allow their children to go to a school that's not their zoned school," Janssen said. "It was a requirement for the parents to get the children to those stops.''
That is a callous assessment that is insensitive and tone deaf at best. Parents did not choose to put their children in harm's way to get to school. They depended upon the school district to locate stops at appropriate locations and to assign a manageable number of students to them. The stop where the teen was killed, at 66th Street and 70th Avenue N, already had been identified as a problem by the district and by parents.
With the third Pinellas student struck and killed near a school bus stop on a major road in the last five years, the district needs to reassess its transportation plan. The cost-saving benefits of some of these bus stops along multilane roads is outweighed by the risk to life. The district also could explore whether adding crossing guards at some bus stops at major intersections, even for high school students, would improve safety. And the next time a student is killed, it would be helpful if the school superintendent sounded more compassionate and accountable than cold and defensive.
It was Hernandez-Huapilla's horrible misjudgment that directly caused the accident. It was the school district that created the dangerous situation that led to it.