Community speaks out on bus safety
The death of 8-year-old Layla Aiken, who died after being struck by a hit-and-run driver last week while waiting for her school bus, brought an emotional crowd to City Hall Monday.
Residents and business leaders alike joined Layla’s friends and classmates to offer suggestions on how to make bus stops safer for the children who wait with some offering funding to get things done now.
One initiative, Lights for Layla, which was created after Aiken’s death, has raised more than $80,000 for lights and benches at bus stops, and one family has gone so far as to set up a concrete bench at the corner of their property where elementary school kids wait in the dark every morning.
Cape Coral Rotary said it can provide bus stop benches and the cement slabs on which to put them.
“We can raise the money and resources to get this done. We can get the business community involved and make it happen quickly,” said Rotarian Ed Bolter.
The challenge is the vast scope of the issue.
There are also nearly 7,000 bus stops in Lee County, about 1,700 of which are in Cape Coral. So far this school year alone, there have been more than 16,000 bus stop changes as families move or change schools, or if a sex offender moves into the area.
School Choice, meanwhile, has resulted in some students having to catch the bus at 5 a.m., and with bell times at elementary schools as early as 7:10 a.m., many small children are waiting for the bus in the dark.
Bill Corbett, Cape Coral’s traffic director, said more than 2,200 buses pick students up during dark hours in Lee County.
City Council members said they are working with the School District of Lee County to make changes that are within the city’s control.
In addition to the benches and street lighting, Councilmember Jessica Cosden stressed the need for the city to set its own budget for sidewalks and not rely exclusively on grants as it has in the past.
“We are too big a city to do that. We have 3,000 land miles of roads. We need to have sidewalks within two miles of a school on both sides,” Cosden said.
Safety education is also important, some on council said.
Mayor Joe Coviello added that the children needed to take more responsibility for their own safety, while Councilmember Rick Williams said that benches could provide another element for kids to play on, adding a new element to the danger.
“We need to convince the school system that we need to teach these kids about safety. Benches are wonderful places to play, and it’s their and the parents’ responsibility to be safe,” Williams said.
When it was the public’s turn to comment, it was with a torrent of emotion, with some anger and some tears, as speakers pleaded with City Council to take action.
Don Armstrong, a former school board member, said in 2011-12 he worked with former Cape Coral Councilmember Kevin McGrail to bring more street lights into the city, but with the Cape then in the midst of a budgetary crisis, they were not able to do it.
“We’re being reactive and not proactive. I’m a dad and these are my kids. We need sidewalks and lights and multiple layers for their safety,” Armstrong said.
Terri Johns, whose cousin was killed while waiting for the school bus in North Fort Myers in 1989, said nothing has been done since and was suspicious about anything being done now
“This is another Band-aid. If you want to end this, get rid of School Choice. If you want to send your kid to a school across town, you need to be responsible to bring them yourselves,” Johns said. “We don’t need buses running at 5 a.m.”
Lillian Goff, a classmate of Layla’s, told council how sad she was at her friend’s death and asked the city to do what it could.
“I don’t like talking in front of people much. But people at the end of the day need to hear what kids have to say about it and how they think it should be done,” said Lillian, who was wearing a pink “Lights for Layla” shirt. “It’s not our fault when someone gets hit because others need to pay attention.”
Randi Romanov, Lillian’s mother, was proud of her speech, and was offended when council members said children need to take more responsibility.
“It’s hard to hear from council that our children need to be responsible, that they need to use their brain or we need to train our kids like animals,” Romanov said. “We also have people saying we need benches and street lights. We are ready and I don’t know how they can say no.”