Bus Stop Safety: Why are so many kids in Lee County waiting for the bus in the dark?

Thousands of kids in Lee County are walking and waiting in the dark every school day. After two young girls, Alana Tamplin of North Fort Myers and Layla Aiken of Cape Coral, were hit and killed at bus stops within weeks of each other, the Lee County School District has started making changes.

WAITING IN THE DARK

WINK News followed the morning routine of one 15-year-old high school student, Autumn, who wakes up at 4:00AM, walks to her bus stop at 4:50AM and sits in the dark until her bus arrives. She wakes up so early because her bus ride is nearly 90 minutes long. Part of why it takes so long is because she chose to attend the Cambridge/AICE Program at Estero High, rather than go to the high school closest to her in South Fort Myers. According to the district, 60% of high schoolers in Lee County choose to go to a school farther away.

“Even though it sort of stinks that I have to wake up so early, it helps in the long run I guess,” Autumn said.

County-wide, as many as 22,000 students are assigned a bus pick-up time before 6:10AM. Depending on the time of year, that is well before the sun comes up. And it is partly because of school choice.

Despite waking up early and sitting in the dark, she said she feels safe. But not everyone does.

“I just feel safer being here with her so that if anything happens I would be here,” said parent Janet Atwood. Her daughter Laura chose to go to Fort Myers High for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which is not offered at the school closest to her home.

Atwood said because it’s so early and dark, she drives her daughter to the stop and waits with her till the bus arrives. Laura’s ride, like Autumn’s, is also 90 minutes.

“Do I prefer that school started a little later? Probably. But it’s worth doing for sure,” Atwood said.

BUS SAFETY CONCERNS

After the deaths of Alana and Layla, the Lee County School District has been under the microscope.

At a town hall in April, parents demanded more lighting, sidewalks, and benches at and around school bus stops, and even questioned Student Enrollment (more commonly known as “school choice”) and school start times.

School board member Mary Fischer said the district is sending out messages to kids and parents about school bus stop safety. She said the school district does not have the power to place benches, street lights, or sidewalks at bus stops, and needs the help of local governments, like the City of Cape Coral, to solve these problems.

“We’re going to see how it works and whether the kids use the benches or not, whether they are visible enough,” Fischer said. “There’s a huge cost factor that goes into the millions to accommodate the number of bus stops and the number of students that we have.”

SOLUTIONS

School board member Chris Patricca told WINK News busing kids to their choice school allows for more equity in education, even if it’s not at the school closest to them. She said this way families are not limited in opportunities because of their zip code.

She wrote in an email: “More than 85% of the students who attend traditional public schools in Lee County come from circumstances of economic disadvantage. As such, if we required parents to pay for or provide their own transportation to our schools, the vast majority of our students would not benefit from our centers of excellence.”

Centers of excellence are high schools that incorporate a specialized curriculum, including the IB program, Cambridge/AICE program, and career and technical centers.

While the district is already trying to narrow school choice for elementary schools, first by replicating certain programs at more schools to make them widely available, she said it is not the same for high school.

“We simply don’t have the resources or the manpower to replicate those programs everywhere,” Patricca said.

When it comes to addressing school start times, Patricca said she is looking to other districts for guidance, and the board plans to have a discussion about it over the summer.

But if school times were pushed later, that could mean less time for after school activities, which is something Autumn doesn’t want to happen.

“Because it would make game times later, practices later,” Autumn said.

So for now, she said the long rides and early wake up calls are worth being able to choose where she goes to school. But she does want to see something change.

“Make it a safer environment for these kids to stand and wait for the bus to go to school,” Autumn said.

School board also needs help from parents to make sure kids stay safe at bus stops. School Board Policy 7.02 (1) (a) states:

“The responsibility of the School Board of Lee County shall begin when students enter the school bus and end when the students depart the school bus. Parents/guardians are responsible for getting students to and from designated bus stops safely, and for their conduct and safety while waiting for the bus.”

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Reporter:Sara Girard
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