Florida Community Discusses School Bus Stop Safety Amid Recent Tragedies

The nonprofit organization “Benches for our Babes” was launched in Lee County, Florida, after recent student deaths. Over the past several weeks, community members have assembled to make and place benches at bus stops, to improve bus stop safety. (Photo courtesy of Sara J. Gummerman)

In this past school year, two young girls were hit and killed by motorists while waiting at or walking from their bus stop in Lee County, Florida. This heartbreak prompted the community to get involved and take action for the increased safety of their children while waiting for the bus.

Graphic courtesy of Jet Victory.

Alana Tamplin was 12-years-old when she was hit by a car on Jan. 14, while walking along Durrance Road around 7 a.m. with her friend. Her GoFundMe page stated there are no sidewalks along this rural road . The two girls were returning home after dropping off the victim’s little sister at her bus stop.

Tamplin was hit and propelled into a grass ditch. The motorist initially stopped, but soon fled the scene, only to return a short time later.

On March 25, 8-year-old Layla Aiken was hit by a car while waiting for the school bus. The driver also left the scene. Aiken was taken to a local hospital, where she died from her injuries.

Another incident took place the morning of April 8, when a 15-year-old boy was hit by a car while walking to his bus stop. Joseph Zimmer was crossing the street in a crosswalk when he was hit. He survived; however, Zimmer was found bloody in the grass and unconscious.

The recent tragedies sparked conversation between law enforcement, the community, school district officials and city officials. A town hall meeting on April 16 was held by the School District of Lee County (SDLC) to discuss school bus stop safety and gain input to on how to best make changes. Several members of the community shared ideas on ways to make school bus stops safer, as soon as they possibly could.

“I have to tell you how I start my every day,” the school district’s superintendent, Gregory Adkins, said to begin the start of the town hall meeting. “It’s a part of my normal ritual, [I say] a prayer for the safety and security of our students. We have over 96,000 kids in our district and bringing them to and from school is an enormous undertaking.”

Adkins said school bus safety is a community issue, and by working together, the will be able to come up with better solutions on school bus stop safety. While SDLC is making steps now to make the stops safer, many community members expressed at the meeting that the efforts weren’t enough. They are taking measures into their own hands.

Photo courtesy of Cristin Maigis.

Benches for our Babes

Benches for our Babes is a group co-founded by Erin Hurley Diaz and Traci West DeBusman to build and place benches at bus stops for the children in Cape Coral, Florida. A Facebook group was created on March 26, after the death of Layla Aiken. At the time of this writing, the group had over 1,700 members.

According to the Rotary Club of Cape Coral web page, the goal to place a bench at every school bus stop in the city. A Rotary Club representative spoke at the town hall meeting and requested signs at every bus stop, where a light can be attached alert drivers that schoolchildren could be present.

Diaz said during the town hall meeting that their group members have taken it upon themselves to work with Lee County to get benches and reflectors approved for the bus stops. Several other companies and organizations also stepped in to help where they could.

A group member reached out to the CEO of Lowe’s Home Improvement via a tweet and received a reply.

“We were involved in a couple of different ways,” Steve Salazar, manager of corporate communications for Lowe’s Companies, told School Transportation News. “They [Benches for our Babes] were in the process through a grass-roots effort of putting together these benches and trying to find enough donations and people to help get those out to the bus stops as soon as possible, because of the fact they had lost a couple of kids over the past few months due to tragic accidents.”

Salazar said the Fort Myers store reached out to other Lowe’s stores in Florida to seek the donation of table kits. Employers put about 100 tables together in the back of the store and received the help of a third-party vendor to pick up the tables and donate their trucks for ease of transportation. On Saturday, the tables will be taken to a warehouse where they will be distributed to bus stops.

Tables the the Lowe’s Home Improvement Store put together and will be donated to their Fort Myers Store. (Photo courtesy of Steve Salazar)

However, prior to the store in Fort Myers offering assistance, another store in Cape Coral, Florida heard about this initiate through the local media. It donated tables, reflective tape (that they put on the tables), as well as locks and chains to make sure the tables were secure.

“It’s just been one of those things where every store has tried to do what they can to further the cause of getting these kids a safe place to stay and be when they are at the bus stops,” Salazar said.

Many community members have volunteered their time on the weekends to help put these benches together and deliver them to bus stops.

“I am a dad, first and foremost. Thank you to everybody putting benches up,” a parent attending the town hall meeting said. “They have been out there every weekend putting in hard work. I don’t know if you guys have been paying attention, but I have seen them out there on the weekends. Putting in hard work, to make sure our kids are safe.”

There are several other Facebook Groups committed to building benches in their Florida cities as well.

Lights for Layla

Lights for Layla is another non-profit organization that was started after the death of Layla Aiken, who was killed in a hit and run at a bus stop in late March. The non-profit focuses on changing the rules and regulations of bus stops in Cape Coral to make them safer.

The Facebook group announces fundraisers that raise profits for the initiatives to improve bus stop safety.

Photo courtesy of the School District of Lee County Facebook Page.

Other Suggestions from the Community

While Lights for Layla and Benches for our Babes are larger groups working on making a difference in the community. Many community members shared their personal suggestions and solutions at the town hall meeting on ways to make school bus stops safer. Some suggestions mentioned are listed below:

  • Street lights and some kind of flashing markers or yellow lights put at bus stops, or solar lights that stick out of the ground and can be moved, if the bus stop changes.
  • Combine bus stops to reduce the amount of stops.
  • Adopt a bus stop; have community volunteers sitting at bus stops in the morning and afternoon to watch traffic and the surrounding area. The goal here is to not leave kids alone at bus stops.
  • Ensuring there are sidewalks on roads with bus stops. Cape Coral is a rural town, and many roads don’t have sidewalks and are reportedly narrow. Kids have to walk on the side of road when walking to or from the bus stop.
  • One member created a ‘Flash Pack’ that sews LEDs onto backpacks so the lights won’t fall off or get lost.
  • Erect huts or shelters up at school bus stops, similar to those at city bus stops.
  • Change school start times to eliminate pre-dawn pick ups.
  • Ask a student on how they feel about safety at their school bus stops, and their ideas on ways to make them safer.
  • Change the school dress code to not allow dark-colored clothing.
  • Place speed bumps on residential roads to avoid drivers going too fast.

An independent solar consultant said during the meeting that he is putting a grant proposal together through the state for 100 solar-powered street lights that he would like to put at bus stops.

Jennifer Ballard, an educator with the district, told School Transportation News that she hopes for “leadership, consistency and communication.”

“What our community is doing is epic and it’s unfortunate why it’s become public,” Ballard added. “Not only in this county but city. Cape Coral has more rules and hoops than anything. The fact that they are allowing a pallet with a light on a corner again. Epic.”

School Choice

Concerned parents there questioned if school choice is the right option for their school district. School choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs. The school might not be the closest to the child’s home, but it is the learning environment the parent has chosen for their kids.

The school district, comprised of 45 elementary schools, four K-8 schools and 14 high schools, transports students who live father than a 1.5-mile radius from their school site, or those who live closer if the walk to school is deemed “hazardous.” The board policy states that a child can walk 1.5 miles to the bus stop. However, it does not allow secondary students to walk more than one mile, and elementary students, more than a half mile. The district also offers transportation to some of its 16 special centers.

The policy also states that Lee County is not responsible for a child until they board the school bus. That responsibility ends when they walk off the school bus. The policy notes that “parents/guardians are responsible for getting students to and from designated bus stops, and for their conduct and safety while waiting for the bus.”

Roger Lloyd, director of operations for transportation services, said during the town hall meeting that to date, the district has made over 16,000 bus stop changes during the current school year. He added that state regulation says that school buses are supposed to stay on public roads, but they occasionally enter gated communities, if it is the safest stop to pick up and drop off kids.

Rob Spiker, assistant director for media relations and public information, told School Transportation News that the school district has 6,958 school bus stops. SDLC includes the entire Lee County area and transports over 49,000 students daily via 753 bus routes.

An opinion piece written in January 2019 by Cathleen Morgan, a member of the Lee County School Board, stated that SDLC is proud to be a “school choice” district. “The Plan for Student Assignment” was adopted in 2004. It was a way of ensuring equity and access for all students to high-quality teaching, curricula and resources.

Parent Jennifer Berlant told School Transportation News that the school choice program is helping students in the community to do their best and that schools in Lee County are diverse because of school choice.

However, not all community members feel the same way. Many expressed views that by having school choice, there are more buses on the road, more miles being travelled and more money being spent.

What Else is the School District Doing?

School district officials said they are continuing to make school bus safety and transportation a priority. Currently, the district is working with county officials and local municipalities to ensure bus stops are safe, as well as developing a task force for the community.

“We have been working on the proximity-based student assignment system; we are doing that right now,” Adkins said at the meeting. “We heard people talk about the establishment of more permanent bus stops. That’s something we are doing right now. We talked about education. We are currently involved. If you go to our website, there is a lot of information there, and we have also been communicating with our schools, school principals and staff, to make sure we are educating our kids better.”

Spiker said the district is especially focusing on reeducation efforts for schools and teachers to pass on to students and families. Some of the tips the district suggested are to wear bright colors, stand well off of the road and to not sit on the curb with their feet in the street. He encouraged children to remain standing, and be well-aware of their surroundings. He also suggested that parents stay at the bus stops to supervise their children and neighborhood children.

Spiker reported the district is actively discussing with the cities of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, and Lee County, whether to make more permanent structural changes to semi-permanent bus stops (the ones that kids use over and over again). Together, they are considering ways to improve lighting, signage and benches. He said they are doing what they can and listening to the community on what will make the stops safer.

Spiker said that their district provides transportation as a public service, picking up students as close as possible to their front doors. However, after hearing what parents want during the meeting, he said the district study providing more centralized bus stops that are better lit and in better locations.

“We support their efforts to make bus stops safer. And we see benches as a part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution,” Spiker said. “This is a community issue. It extends to drivers on the road paying attention, adults supervising their children at the bus stop, cities and counties working towards lights and sidewalks, possibly benches and signs. It takes all of us to create a safe bus stop. The school district cannot do it alone.”