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Boy’s Death Puts Focus on Bus Safety : Precaution: Some routes are rechecked and policies are restated, with an emphasis on children crossing streets.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The death of 7-year-old Thomas E. Lanni, hit by a pickup truck after he got off of a school bus here last week, has served as a wake-up call for Orange County school districts, many of which are giving their bus drivers special safety reminders, officials said Friday.

“It wakes everybody up,” said Francoise Deighan, bus driver supervisor for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. “It’s a school bus driver’s nightmare. . . . None of us wants it to happen.”

Lanni was hit by a pickup truck on April 22 as he crossed Aliso Niguel, and died after being taken to the hospital. He was riding the school bus for the first time and had just begun attending Marian Bergeson Elementary School.

In many districts, newspaper accounts of the accident have been posted on bulletin boards to serve as a grim reminder to bus drivers of how quickly tragedy can strike along their routes. Some districts plan to include a special safety reminder in their next bus driver newsletter, while others have already held impromptu safety discussions.

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“We are just reminding drivers of what they already know,” said Ron Suttle, director of transportation for the Garden Grove School District, which transports about 7,000 students by bus to and from school each day.

At the Saddleback Valley School District, where more than 2,200 students are bused daily, transportation officials this week physically reviewed all of their bus stops--paying special attention to those where students disembark and have to cross a street.

“We have redoubled our efforts and drivers are really on the alert for any potential problems,” said Virginia Barnes, director of operations for Santa Barbara Transportation, which provides bus service to the district.

At the Capistrano Unified School District, the school district in which the accident occurred, supervisors have had formal and informal safety discussions with drivers, said spokeswoman Jacqueline Price.

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Price said that a training session on Tuesday, which had already been scheduled before the accident, will focus on the incident.

“Everything related to safety on school buses will be discussed,” Price said.

The accident has been on the minds of many bus drivers and supervisors this week, said Rita Finen, director of transportation for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and secretary for the California Assn. of School Transportation Officials.

“It’s being heavily talked about amongst drivers,” Finen said. “Every school bus driver who has driven for more than a half-hour has some kind of situation in the loading zone that causes them to miss a heartbeat or two. Loading and unloading is the most precarious part of school transportation.”

Lanni, whose family had just moved to Orange County from New York, apparently got off the bus at the wrong stop. He was the first child off, and was hit when the pickup truck pulled around the bus.

The child’s parents contend that the accident could have been avoided if the district had followed safety procedures, and are angry over several major discrepancies in the school district’s initial account of the accident.

Price said the district was not intentionally inaccurate, but initially had very limited information. The district had originally stated that the child had darted into traffic to greet friends across the street, a statement Price said this week “was probably conjecture.”

State law requires school buses to display flashing lights to stop traffic in both directions “when children are unloading from the school bus to cross a highway,” except where traffic is operated by a traffic officer or traffic signal, according to the California Vehicle Code.

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There was no traffic signal or traffic officer at the location where the child crossed. The driver of the pickup truck, whose name was not released, was not cited in the accident.

Price said that the school bus had not been displaying flashing lights to warn of children disembarking, because the bus has normally pulled away by the time the four children who live across the street cross.

“It has come to our attention that some students were crossing the street after the bus left, unbeknownst to us,” said Price, who added that the district reassigned the four students to bus stops on the same side of the street as their residences.

Price said the four students should have been assigned to stops on the other side of the road in the first place, making crossing unnecessary. She said in two cases, the error was made by parents who requested the wrong stops, and in two cases the fault was the district’s.

The spokeswoman could not confirm whether Lanni had specifically asked the bus driver whether he was at the right stop and had been told to exit the bus. The boy’s mother, Barbara Lanni, said she had spoken with the bus driver the morning of the accident and informed him that her son was unfamiliar with the area.

Thomas W. Lanni, the dead boy’s father, said Friday he was “horrified that lights don’t flash when buses stop as a matter of course. To question whether they should is ludicrous. Common sense would dictate that they would, whether or not it’s state law.”

Times staff writer Mark I. Pinsky contributed to this story.


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