Deaths of Middleton students spur safety reminders

TAMPA — Two of their schoolmates were hit by a car crossing busy Hillsborough Avenue last week, and one of them died during the weekend.


Still, cameras set up since the accident show some Middleton High School students still aren’t using the crosswalks there.


School district and law enforcement officials say education is key to heading off another deadly crash.


“We need to get the message into kids’ heads they need to use the crosswalks,” Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said. “At a very young age, our parents teach us to look both ways before crossing. For whatever reason, we forget.”


The school district, as well as the police department and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, are putting together a program that will focus on pedestrian safety. The details are still being ironed out.


“It’s hard to get kids to see that they’re not invincible,” Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said during a meeting with The Tampa Tribune’s editorial board last week. “This is more than physical constraints. It’s getting it in kids’ heads.”


School board member Doretha Edgecomb, whose district includes Middleton, raised questions at a school board meeting the afternoon of the crash about what the district could do to help.


“You’ve got to have responsibility as a driver, as a bicycle rider, as a walker,” Edgecomb said Monday. “At that age, you’re willing to take chances. We talk about seatbelt safety and texting and driving. I think we’ve got to put the spotlight on pedestrian safety.”


Norma Velasquez-Cabrera, 15, was critically injured in the crash and died in a hospital over the weekend. Her sister Victoria Velasquez-Cabrera, 14, also was killed.


Police said the student driving the vehicle was not at fault. It was dark at the time and the girls were not walking in marked crosswalks. There are crosswalks on Hillsborough at 22nd and 30th streets, a few blocks away on either side of where the girls were hit.


The accident brings the number of teens hit by a vehicle in that area to four since 2011. Two of them died.


Shenika Davis, 15, died after being hit by a vehicle in October 2011.


Students attended an assembly dedicated to pedestrian safety the day after the crash. Additionally, a police squad paid for with state grant money has been monitoring traffic in the six-lane stretch of the road that many use as a shortcut to get to school. The school resource officer will also monitor the situation, Davis said.


“Hillsborough Avenue has always been a focus, including that area, but because of the accident, we are doing some extra enforcement,” she said. “We don’t want to see any more kids hurt.”


The $100,000 pedestrian grant comes from the Florida Department of Transportation, which has launched a review of the area. Davis said about $400,000 has been used to increase enforcement along Hillsborough Avenue, Busch Boulevard, Fowler Avenue and Nebraska Avenue.


After a warning, pedestrians and drivers caught again can be issued a citation. Since Nov. 1, the squad funded by the grant has issued 504 warnings and 946 citations to pedestrians and drivers, Davis said.


In its review, the DOT is looking at crash data, conducting pedestrian counts and studying the area for a signal. Flashing yellow warning lights have already been installed there for drivers.


As part of the DOT review, video cameras were installed in the area over the weekend and are being used to count pedestrians and monitor drivers’ behavior, department spokeswoman Kris Carson said. The department is also working with Tampa Electric Co. to see if lighting can be improved.


The cameras will remain for a few days, and the department will come up with a list of improvements in several weeks, she said.


School counselors were on hand at Middleton on Monday for any students who were having a hard time dealing with the news that Norma Velasquez-Cabrera had died.


On April 5, the school’s annual Ride for Education event will be held in her honor and money raised will go to her family. It will last from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the school, 4801 N. 22nd St., and will include a motorcycle ride, health screenings, vendors and music.


Rick Mayer of TBO.com contributed to this report.


ekourkounis@tampatrib.com


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Twitter: @ErinKTBO