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Rural Virginia County, Stunned by 3 Killings, Promotes Child Safety

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When three girls were killed after being abducted from their rural Virginia homes during the last school year, many people surmised that the murderer had tracked their school buses to learn their schedules.

"It's a logical conclusion" because each of the girls was taken at about 3 p.m., said Spotsylvania County Sheriff Ronald Knight.

And a frightening one for children and parents in the normally quiet community, which is about midway between Washington and Richmond.

As the county's 16,500 students returned to school this fall, educators and civic leaders determined they could turn the fear to good account. With the help of a national crime-fighting group, they have moved to make before- and after-school hours safer, and to make children more aware of the need to be alert.

"Schools are responding to a heightened awareness we see in parents," said Laura Myse, a spokeswoman for the Spotsylvania County district.

Importance of Drivers

After hearing from local activists, the National Crime Prevention Council picked the county as the launch site for a new campaign to promote bus safety. The Washington-based group sponsors the popular school-based "Take a Bite Out of Crime" campaign.

Speakers at the district's annual driver orientation last month reminded school bus drivers that they are eyes and ears for the community.

Louis Dominguez, a representative of the crime-fighting group, urged the drivers to each appoint a student assistant to sit behind them and help keep a detailed log of dangerous or suspicious activity.

A local businessman donated 300 stuffed McGruff anti-crime dogs to ride on school buses.

"They remind the children to be safe and aware of anything they are uncomfortable with," said bus driver Pat Huskey. She added that students are familiar with McGruff from lessons in school.

These days, Ms. Huskey said, she sees fewer children waiting for buses alone and more parents at the stops.

Lights On

Starting this year, district bus drivers will drive with their headlights on as a traffic-safety measure, said Randy Jenkins, the school system's transportation director.

Sheriff Knight said that as many as 100 new and existing Neighborhood Watch group have sprung into action since the murders. This fall, residents in cars will be shadowing school buses as they arrive in neighborhoods.

Sofia Silva, 16, disappeared from her front stoop a year ago, and her body was found five weeks later. Sisters Kristin Lisk, 15, and Kati Lisk, 12, were abducted and murdered in May. All three attended local public schools.

Police believe there was a single murderer, but no arrest has been made in the case.

"Principals have stepped up efforts to get students to stay after school" so they will be supervised, said Ms. Myse, the school spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, a task force convened by the Spotsylvania County school board is considering new ways to protect children, such as mentoring programs, more after-school care, and lessons on how to be home alone.

"We are trying to create lots of opportunities," Ms. Myse said, "for children to learn new ways of behaving in what has unfortunately become a new and scarier world."

PHOTO: Spotsylvania County, Va., is participating in a new bus-safety campaign after three local students from were abducted and killed after school. Some theorize the killer stalked their school buses.
-- AP/Wide World

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