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Mom fights for bus ride for daughter

For more than a year, 12-year-old Samantha Russo has ridden the bus to and from school every day.

Then early last month, Samantha's bus driver told her she would be banned from the bus.

The reason: Samantha lives 1.95 miles from Pinellas Park Middle School. The Pinellas County School District does not bus kids who live less than 2 miles from their school.

Samantha's mother, Lisa Dreschler, said the walk to the school is dangerous. The only safe route is 2.3 miles, she said, and the district should continue providing bus service for her daughter.

"I don't think what is going on is right," Dreschler said. "I don't ever want her to be put in a position where her safety is at risk."

District officials, however, say the route they suggest is safe according to state guidelines and is shorter than the 2-mile radius set by the state.

If Dreschler wants her daughter to walk a longer route for whatever reason, that's up to her, officials said, and the district will not send a bus for her daughter just because Dreschler's chosen route is more than 2 miles.

"The route meets the criteria," said Jim Miller, director of real property development for the school district. "If it meets the criteria, we cannot provide transportation."

Representatives from Pinellas Park also say the route is safe to walk and have suggested a couple of alternative paths that Samantha could use. Other children, including elementary school pupils, walk the route every day, they said.

"I haven't gotten any complaints," said Paul Bertels, director of Pinellas Park's traffic division.

Dreschler said all the suggested routes have problems.

One of them would have Samantha walking west down 82nd Avenue from her home on 80th Avenue N. When she reached 66th Street N, she would turn south. She would have to walk along that busy street and cross both 66th and Park Boulevard with the help of crossing guards.

Dreschler said it's dangerous for her daughter to walk along 66th for a long distance. The edge of the sidewalk is only 26 inches from the traffic lane.

As for the Park and 66th intersection, Dreschler said the two crossing guards are not sufficient to control all the traffic.

Pinellas Park records show between 44,000 and 46,500 cars travel Park each day. Another 35,000 to 36,500 cars use 66th Street.

Michael Fleming, head of transportation for the school system, said the route along 66th meets state requirements for safe walking. The sidewalk is more than 2 feet from the road, and the walkway itself is 5 feet wide.

Fleming added that the state definition of a safe walking zone applies only to routes that elementary pupils take. They do not apply to routes for middle and high school students.

The other two proposed routes would have Samantha walk west along 78th Avenue N. With these, Samantha would have to walk by a construction area where drainage lines are being installed.

"My little girl is not walking through a construction area," Dreschler said. "She's a virgin. I don't ever want her to be put in a position where her safety is at risk."

Bertels said Dreschler should not fear the construction workers. Pinellas Park has a clause in its contract with construction people saying that if workers harass people, the company must get rid of them. Besides, he said, the city has left the sidewalk on one side of the street specifically for school kids, and pupils walk there every day with no incident.

Dreschler also worries that Samantha has to cross a railroad track when walking to school. Trains cross two to three times a day.

"I never in my life thought I would have to prepare my child to walk over an active railroad track," she said.

Dreschler objects to the general area of the routes, saying there are vagrants who could harass or otherwise hurt children.

Bertels said the city can fix the problem of vagrants who insult children.

To add insult to injury, Dreschler said, the school bus Samantha used to ride has several times been parked at the end of her street waiting to pick up children.

"We are forced to look at this empty bus waiting to pick up children in our neighborhood, but not ours," Dreschler said.

Miller said the school district cannot give Samantha bus service because she lives within 2 miles of the school. But he had several suggestions including car pools and asking Pinellas Park Middle to open a child-care program in the morning.

Either way, Samantha could ride to school and Dreschler would be able to get to work on time in the mornings, he said.

Dreschler said there's already a car pool available in the form of a school bus.

"They could grandfather these kids in and have an end of it," she said. But if state laws prohibit the district from providing transportation, then the laws need to be changed.

"I think the laws either need to be changed or (parents should be) accommodated," Dreschler said. "I shouldn't be out here (fighting the system). This is not what I want to do, guys. I really don't."