Alabama school bus tragedy raises questions, awareness in Kent

Lance Lysowski

On the afternoon of Jan. 29, a man boarded a Midland City, Ala. school bus and demanded two boys. Bus driver Charles Poland Jr. refused the order and was shot and killed before the gunman escaped with a five-year-old boy.

As the weeklong hostage situation ended with the death of the kidnapper, Kent City Schools officials, bus drivers and parents continue to search for answers to avoid a similar situation happening in the area.

The amount of school-related acts of violence in recent years has added cause for concern, according to Jim Soyars, director of business services in the district. The district has 26 school buses running daily to the five elementary schools, Stanton Middle School, Theodore Roosevelt High School and Central School.

“We are so open and we are picking up all of these kids and getting them to school in the morning and dropping them off in the afternoon,” Soyars said. “We are out in the community doing this, and this is why this is just so horrible.”

Local business owner Chuck Giaimo, whose ten-year-old daughter Jessica attends Davey Elementary School, said he was ‘shocked’ to hear of the tragic death and kidnapping.

“It was disheartening,” Giaimo said. “Never in my day did I ever not feel safe at school, or when I went on a bus to go to school.”

The protocol for a bus driver to avoid a similar issue is not foolproof. According to the district’s safety regulations, a bus driver is supposed to stand and make sure every student on the bus is seated and safe. When approaching the bus stop, the driver must scan the area for anyone that looks suspicious. If there are any signs of danger, the driver must call the bus station or drive away from the stop to call the police.

Soyars and the district hope that drivers continue to observe bus stops thoroughly and to double-check for any strangers in the area.

Maynard Evans, 75 and a bus driver for Kent City Schools, has 13 years of bus-driving experience and said the decision to drive past the bus stop because of a potential threat is not an easy one to make.

“It would be really difficult in any instance to say ‘I’m not going to pick up those kids at that stop because there’s someone who looks out of place,’” Evans said. “It’s going to be a judgment call, and it’s going to be hard.”

An issue can arise when parents wait with their child at bus stops to ensure safety. For Evans and other drivers, knowing the difference between a child’s parent and a threat is a difficult analysis to make.

“If it’s 6:15 in the morning, it’s dark, you’ve got two kids standing at the stop and someone wrestles their way on the bus, it may happen so fast you won’t know it,” Evans said.”

According to John Charlton, associate director of communications at the Ohio Department of Education, every school district is required to have a safety plan that addresses transportation, as well as in-school situations. The plan must then be filed with the Attorney General’s Office and local law enforcement.

“With everything that happened up in Connecticut at Sandy Hook and in other incidents, the awareness of school safety has certainly been heightened,” Charlton said.

Kent City Schools’ safety training programs are currently under review by administration and discussion is ongoing among drivers on how to prevent this from happening in Kent.

With the increasing number of variables a bus driver can encounter at a bus stop, including inclement weather, parents waiting with children or even a blocked view of the entire area, Evans commends drivers who continue helping children daily with the increasing amount of risk involved.

“It will be a true test of courage for bus drivers to continue to work with the public the way they have,” Evans said.

Contact Lance Lysowski at [email protected].