HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – It’s a lesson more and more parents are forced to teach their children.
The lesson to be careful when walking to the bus stop and pay attention when you get there, since you never know who may be watching.
So 8 On Your Side wanted to find out what parents could do to make sure their child gets to and from the bus stop safely.
After all, for most kids, it’s a quick trip from the house to the bus stop but along the way, there are sex offenders who may be living a little bit too close for comfort.
For countless Tampa Bay area students, they wait for the school bus in the dark.
8 On Your Side found plenty of children, some with their parents, waiting for the bus to show up.
“It’s very unsafe,” Cheryl Chaput told us moments after she watched as her grandchild got on the bus. “The bus stops but the cars keep on going.”
Chaput’s bus picks up on the busy North Boulevard, where cars speed down the road. It’s not those speeding cars, but something sinister that scares some parents.
When 8 On Your Side told Chaput that eight sex offenders lived within a mile of her house, she immediately replied, “Yeah, there was one right on my street.”
When asked if that surprised her, Chaput replied, “I’m glad it’s only eight.”
WFLA News Channel 8 did some checking of our own. Within 2 miles of Chaput’s house, we found 54 offenders. As the distance from her house grew, so did the number of offenders. We found 140 offenders within 3 miles of her house and then a whopping 379 sex offenders within 5 miles.
We asked Chaput if she had a fear that one of those sex offenders could find her grandchildren, she thought for a moment, and said, “Oh, yeah.”
We showed Chaput the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s website to help her and other families find the addresses of sex offenders in their neighborhood and specifically how close they lived near their little one’s bus stop.
We showed the website to another mother who spoke with us at her home just down the street as her child got ready for school. Immediately she knew what we were talking about when we asked her if she looked at it.
“A the time,” Heather McAdoo said. “Absolutely. You never know who is in your neighborhood. You never know who your neighbor is. Sometimes they don’t even register. We had one across the street from the house.”
It’s for that reason and several others that McAdoo drives 10-year-old Brendan to and from school each and every day.
When McAdoo left to take Brendan to school, 8 On Your Side made a trip of our own to the homes of three sex offenders who lived just nearby.
At each house, we found cars in the driveway but no one came to the door.
School officials told us that they work with parents and their children to keep them aware and informed.
“We are concerned about our students from the time they leave their house to the time they return to their house,” Linda Cobb of the Pasco County School District said. “We take responsibility of them when they step on the bus.”
That means any step a student takes before getting on the bus or after from the bus to the house is the responsibility of their parents.
Still Cobb told us, “That doesn’t mean we don’t care what happens.”
That’s why Pasco County kids are taught about stranger dangers, to walk in groups and to be aware of who and what is around them as they make their way to the bus stop.
Once she told us how they educate families, we asked Cobb if the name Jennifer Odom rang a bell. Almost immediately, we could see Cobb was visibly moved.
“Yes,” she told us. “It sends chills down my spine.”
When we asked Cobb why her memories of the murder of Odom came flooding back, she said, “That is our worst nightmare that a student gets off the bus and doesn’t return home.”
That worst nightmare came true 24 years ago and became the Tampa Bay area’s most notorious case of a child, in this case, 12-year-old Jennifer Odom, who vanished from her bus stop.
The mystery surrounding Odom’s disappearance still haunts the rural Pasco County community where Odom lived.
In the six days following Odom’s disappearance from about 200 yards from her family’s Pasco County home, deputies, investigators, and residents turned out in numbers both day and night until Odom’s body was eventually found about 10 miles to the north of her house in Hernando County.
Since then, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office has dedicated at least one lead investigator to the case as they’ve examined thousands of pieces of evidence and interviewed hundreds of people.
When asked if the case was still solvable all these years later, the lead detective immediately answered, “Yes.”
Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Detective George Loydgren is counting on DNA that they believe could lead them to Odom’s killer.
“With advances in science and technology,” Detective Loydgren told 8 On Your Side, “we are able to send new items and other items off to the lab.”
Criminologists say it’s important that everyone know that not all sex offenders re-offend and it can be easy to lump into one category. Because of that, they recommend people get to know all of their neighbors and not just the names and faces of the sex offenders on the state’s website.
“We have violent offenders and burglars that also live nearby us but they’re not on a list that we can easily look at,” USF Professor of Criminology Bryanna Fox told us.
Experts advise parents to keep their kids close and when they can’t, kids should know how to look out for themselves.
When we asked Chaput what she’s told her grandkids, she told us she didn’t pull any punches. “Kick them right where it hurts,” is the advice she’s given them.
McAdoo, who continued to wait as Brendan got ready for school, smiled and told us, “I’m right there, I’m waiting for him. I’m ready for him to come home.”
If you’d like to find out the names and address of sex offenders and see their faces and their crimes, take a look at the FDLE’s website right here.