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Parents score victory in effort to make travel safer for Westchase students

TAMPA ó Hillsborough County school leaders call it courtesy busing, but to Lauren Hawkins itís more a matter of life and death.

More students living close to their schools in the Westchase community used the Hillsborough school districtís courtesy busing program than any community in the county. And now itís gone, in part for cost reasons.

In its place, the lines of vehicles dropping off and picking up children stretch around the block at some schools so parents have taken to dropping their kids off at a nearby Winn-Dixie supermarket parking lot or in a Starbucks restaurant, leaving them to navigate in groups as they cross five or six lanes of traffic.

"The danger lies in not only the added congestion in the area, but how weíre evolving in the community," Hawkins said. "Driving is more aggressive and distractions are more abundant. Putting all those things together, children 11- to 14-years-old dodging cars to get to school is unacceptable."

Now, after months of lobbying and rallies, Hawkins and other parents have scored a victory in their efforts to students to and from school more safely: Hillsborough County is taking steps at Race Track Road and Countryway Boulevard that include adding an extra five seconds of delay for a pedestrian crosswalk and a "no turn on red signal" at each end of the busy intersection during school start and stop times.

For Hawkins, the moves canít come soon enough.

Farnell Middle School parents blame the new hazards and long lines on the school districtís decision a year ago to cut courtesy bus service for middle and high school students living within two miles of school. Just last week, Hawkinsí own son, Brayden, 12, was hit by a car as he walked his bike across the street. He was not hurt.

The collision came a few weeks after a 13-year-old student was struck by a car on his way to school. The student wasnít seriously injured, but the incidents rekindled concerns that some intersections outside of the school zone are unsafe.

The chief problem, says Hawkins, 38, is the intersection of Race Track Road and Countryway Boulevard, used by 70,000 vehicles per day, where students have to cross five to six lanes of traffic.

"Weíre all viewing this as a warning," Hawkins said. "These little incidents arenít being announced or publicized. But theyíre happening a lot more frequently than we know."

The district initially provided courtesy busing to certain areas because of hazardous conditions. Those hazards remain, Hawkins said.

"This (accident) happened, in part, because of the elimination of courtesy busing, a term Iíve never heard until the courtesy was taken away," Hawkins told the Hillsborough County School Board on May 15. Earlier that morning, she led about a dozen parents in a demonstration at the intersection, hoping to call attention to the issue.

A study by the district, conducted in 2016, showed that in the Westchase community, 374 students at Farnell Middle School, 19 at Davidsen Middle and 229 at Westchase Elementary used the courtesy busing program.

The Florida Department of Education provides funding for courtesy buses for elementary students who would have to walk in hazardous areas. But the cost for middle and high school students comes out of the schoolís district budget.

The Hillsborough County School District reports it is saving $3 million a year with the cuts it has already made to courtesy busing. Middle and high school students felt the cuts at the start of this school year. Eventually, the district plans to end courtesy busing for elementary students for more savings.

Historically, Hillsborough County Schools provided courtesy busing in areas where there may have been construction nearby, said district spokeswoman Tanya Arja.

"Unfunded courtesy busing was always meant to be temporary and removed from a neighborhood once that hazardous condition was fixed," she said.

Two years ago, the district reviewed all of the unfunded courtesy busing routes and those that did not meet the statute for hazardous walking conditions were removed, cutting service to about 7,500 middle and high school students countywide.

Students who live less than two miles from school are not eligible for public school transportation.

After her initial frustration, Hawkins said she is pleased with the progress.

"Iím happy people are finally listening," she said. "We know our community is growing and there are more children and parents on the road. Iím just glad weíre finally trying to make things better, before a child is killed at this intersection."

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Tim Fanning [email protected] Follow @TimothyJFanning

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