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Though school is nearby, parents give kids a ride

Fifth-grader Christian LaFleur looks plenty sturdy for the three-block walk from his home to Claywell Elementary School.

No fragile kindergartener, this guy. His dad owns a gym.

But like most parents of Claywell students who live close enough to walk, the parents of 10-year-old Christian drive him to and from school. They are part of a large, some say growing, group, too scared to allow their kids an elementary-age rite of passage: walking or bicycling to school.

"Our biggest fear is that someone's going to snatch your kids," said Christian's father, Jeff LaFleur. "I don't know even if it's one-in-a-million. But that's one-in-a-million too many if it's your child."

From placid suburbs such as Northdale to rural areas and inner-city schools, parents cite such fear as reason No. 1 for keeping their children in the car. To a lesser degree, they worry about the danger posed by traffic between home and school. Some, especially in two-income families, just like the convenience.

All contribute to small-scale traffic nightmares mainly around elementary schools across the Tampa Bay area. Tie-ups that demand complex pick-up systems and stricter attention to the safety of kids who are on foot. All this, just as many communities heighten the call for neighborhood schools undivided by busing. In other words, close enough to walk to.

Yet for parents who consider the options to be traffic jam or child-snatcher, there is no choice.

"I just don't trust people. I think there are a bunch of lunatics out there," said Donna Curry, 28, a mother of two girls, a fourth-grader and a first-grader at DeSoto Elementary in Tampa. "Even when they're in middle school, they'll probably be embarrassed, but I'm still going to drive them."

Researchers at the University of Florida began documenting the trend away from riding and bicycling five years ago, with a study of how kids get to school. They focused on students living within 2 miles of their campuses, since state law says that only children who live outside that limit, or elementary-age children who face hazardous walking conditions, may ride a school bus.

There are no exceptions for middle and high school students.

The researchers already knew that only one in six Florida children walked or bicycled to school. After surveying parents in Alachua and Hillsborough counties as a sample, they found that of those who did walk, almost none walked more than a mile. In Hillsborough, 64 percent were taken by car.

The study also found that schools with the fewest walkers were in suburban, middle- to upper-income neighborhoods. The most walkers were found at lower-income, urban schools.

At Claywell, in suburban northwest Hillsborough, principal Glenda Midili estimated that about 70 percent of students within 2 miles are driven to school.

Since the study, the state Department of Education has begun to revise school designs to make them safer for walkers and bicyclists and to encourage parents to let their kids out of the cars. Sidewalks and bike paths have been added at some older schools to keep students safe from car traffic, said Linda Crider, a UF professor in the department of urban and regional planning, who led the study.

The most tangible effect of the research is just arriving in the form of a pilot program at 10 Florida schools, among them Pinellas Park Elementary and Mort Elementary in North Tampa.

At Mort, few students live outside the 2-mile limit. About 42 percent walk, but 49 percent get there by car. Officials at Pinellas Park could not provide exact figures, but principal Joyce Johnson said the school also has more car riders than walkers.

The purpose of the pilot program is to make the areas around the schools safer for walkers and bike-riders, so parents will want to let them walk, and to decrease the traffic that has them worried in the first place.

The new plans could mean crossing guards, better sidewalks or rerouting traffic more safely around the school. To combat the fear of possible abductions, the UF researchers suggest "walking buses," in which a designated adult moves from house to house picking up kids on a group-walk to school.

The schools will receive help from UF and the state Department of Transportation to develop safety plans but must find the money to put them into practice elsewhere.

Yet, no number of crossing guards would keep Terri Regan from pulling her blue Toyota Camry into the Claywell traffic circle each day at 1:35 p.m., 40 minutes before dismissal, to snag the second spot in the pick-up line. Regan lives about three-fourths of a mile from the school, but refuses to allow her third-grader, Sean, to make the trek alone.

"For my own personal well-being, I want to make sure he gets to school and gets home," said Regan, 37.

If Sean were older or had other kids to walk with, Regan might change her mind, she said.

"But to be honest with you, I won't even let him ride his bicycle out front. Only in the back yard, or if I'm with him."

And new sidewalks won't be enough for parents at Boyette Springs Elementary in Riverview, either. A group of them are demanding bus service within 2 miles of the school for their kids, even after a sidewalk is built between the school and nearby subdivisions.

"No 5-year-old child, or even 10-year-old, should be expected to walk 2 miles to school . . . There is no such thing as "safety in numbers.' Even walking with a group, children have been easily lured away," reads their petition to have the route declared too hazardous to walk.

Ruth Peters, a Clearwater child psychologist, calls parents' concerns about letting their kids walk "healthy paranoia" and says it has "baby-fied" children today, making them more dependent on their parents than children were in the past. It comes in part from a focus on crimes against children in the news media, Peters said, though she thinks parents are just as worried about the danger from speeding cars on roads near schools.

To parents who wish they could let their children walk but are too frightened, Peters says: "If you're not comfortable with it, you're not ready for it, just don't do it."

At Claywell, built as a "walk-in" school for primarily neighborhood children, school officials have devised a new system better suited to reality _ which is that Claywell is now a "pick-up" school. All but one crosswalk in the traffic circle will be eliminated to prevent parents and kids from darting across the two lanes for pick-up and exiting.

"We are trying to reorganize so no kids are unsupervised," said Roger Stanley, a fifth-grade teacher and Claywell's safety sponsor.

The sadness of it all is not lost on Jeff LaFleur, Christian's father, who said he walked or rode his bike to school from an early age, never with an adult around.

"It's unfortunate," said LaFleur, 43. "When you come by the schools in the afternoon, there's nobody here. There's nobody on the playground. When I was a kid, I lived on the playground. But unless there's an organized activity, you're afraid to let your kids go."