School bus tragedy draws at­ten­tion, but for how long?

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - News - Jerry Davich jdavich@post-trib.com

Chris­tena Chance re­acted im­me­di­ately when she first heard about the deaths of three young sib­lings struck by a mo­torist at a school bus stop in Rochester.

“I started to cry in­stantly, ” said Chance, who drives a school bus for Mer­ril­lville Com­mu­nity School Corp.

She was one of many school bus drivers in North­west In­di­ana who con­tacted me

Oct. 30 to share the story of that fa­tal in­ci­dent in Ful­ton County, lo­cated south­east of our re­gion. The mo­torist, Alyssa Shep­herd, 24, was charged with three felony counts of reck­less homi­cide and one mis­de­meanor count of pass­ing a school bus while its arm was ex­tended, caus­ing in­jury .

Af­ter her ar­rest, Shep­herd told po­lice that she saw bus lights that morn­ing, but she did not rec­og­nize it was a school bus stop un­til it was too late.

She struck and killed 6-year-old twins Xavier and Ma­son In­gle, and their older sis­ter, 9-year-old Alivia Stahl, as they crossed the street to board their school bus.

“My first re­ac­tion to the aw­ful news was both ex­treme sad­ness as well as a feel­ing of un­easi­ness,” said Nancy Perez, who drives a school bus for Lake Cen­tral School Corp. in south Lake County.

“I be­lieve every bus driver sees him­self or her­self as be­ing a po­ten­tial vic­tim of a bus stop traf­fic vi­o­la­tion,” Perez said. “I in­clude the bus driver among the vic­tims be­cause he or she will for­ever have to live with the con­se­quences of giv­ing that group of stu­dents the sig­nal that it was OK to cross the road on that dark morn­ing.”

All the lo­cal school bus drivers who con­tacted me said the driver in Rochester will re­play that morn­ing over and over and think of hy­po­thet­i­cal al­ter­na­tives that could have pre­vented it.

“Un­for­tu­nately, it usu­ally takes a tragedy to get peo­ple’s at­ten­tion and par­tic­i­pa­tion,” said Perez, whose hus­band, Rich Perez, also drives a school bus for Lake Cen­tral.

“Rich and I pay close at­ten­tion to these news sto­ries so we can learn from them and hope­fully look for ways to keep our kids safer,” she said. “We have no­ticed that since this story went na­tional, the drivers along each of our routes have been ex­cep­tion­ally cour­te­ous, for now .

“But sadly, we ex­pect to see things go­ing back to nor­mal once the sting of this new story gets tucked be­hind the con­stant news­feed of the day ,” Perez said.

Lo­cal bus drivers con­tacted me be­cause two weeks ago I wrote a col­umn on school bus safety, warn­ing that too many mo­torists are ei­ther in­ten­tion­ally dis­obey­ing or dan­ger­ously obliv­i­ous to buses’ ex­tended stop-arm and flash­ing lights.

(Read that pre­vi­ous col­umn at www.chicagotri bune.com/sub­urbs/post-tri­bune/opin­ion/ct-ptb­davich-school-bus-drivers-com­plaints-st-1019-story .html)

“Sadly, I think the only peo­ple who would take this col­umn to heart would never have run around the buses in the first place, ” said Amanda Ponin­ski, a reader from Mun­ster.

For that col­umn, Freedah Wright, who drives a school bus for Portage Town­ship School District, told me, “It hap­pens every day . No­body cares. ”

Be­sides the Rochester fa­tal­i­ties, there were three other school bus ac­ci­dents in the last week in Mis­sis­sippi, Penn­syl­va­nia and Florida that left two other chil­dren dead and five chil­dren hos­pi­tal­ized.

It’s taken these tragedies to get mo­torists to care about school bus safety.

“What is so im­por­tant that you have to speed, dis­obey traf­fic signs or lights, and run stop-arms on a school bus?” asked Chance, who was an­gry when she con­tacted me. “If you are al­ways in that big of a hurry, then get your ass up ear­lier and leave for wher­ever you are go­ing ear­lier.

“Stop to think about what you are do­ing be­cause the kids you could pos­si­bly hit could very well be your own child or your neigh­bor’s child,” she added.

Last month, Chance in­vited me onto her school bus for a ride-along to see first­hand how mo­torists ca­su­ally ig­nore school bus safety pro­ce­dures. Her school district de­nied my re­quest.

Perez, who’s been driv­ing a school bus for five years, said she spoke Oct. 31 with one of Lake Cen­tral’s new­est bus drivers.

She said that this story from Rochester has given her “some reser­va­tions about re­main­ing a bus driver,” Perez said. “We also talked about the short­age of school bus drivers in just about every district, and we won­dered if the dan­gers at bus stops have con­trib­uted to this lack of drivers. ”

One vet­eran school bus driver told me that all drivers need to make peace with the in­her­ent risks that come with the job.

“When peo­ple are in their cars, they seem to view other ve­hi­cles on the road as ob­sta­cles in their way , in­clud­ing school buses,” she said.

Perez added, “Be­ing cour­te­ous to one an­other on the road isn’t typ­i­cally our first re­ac­tion if our daily com­mute is in­ter­rupted in any way.”

Shep­herd told po­lice she had three chil­dren in her back­seat dur­ing the Rochester crash. She likely had a lapse in judg­ment while be­hind the wheel. I’ve had sim­i­lar men­tal lapses as a driver. Within a few sec­onds, her life crashed into de­spair, heartache and life­long re­gret.

Tippeca­noe school of­fi­cials said they have since moved that bus stop from a state road to a lo­cal park.

“In ad­di­tion, I am es­tab­lish­ing a trans­porta­tion safety review com­mit­tee which will ex­am­ine all of our bus stop lo­ca­tions to en­sure our chil­dren are trans­ported safely, ” Tippeca­noe V al­ley School Corp. Su­per­in­ten­dent Blaine Con­ley said in a state­ment.

Hope­fully , school dis­tricts across North­west In­di­ana and be­yond also will ex­am­ine their bus stops.

“Drivers need to remember that school buses trans­port young stu­dents who are to­tally de­pen­dent on their bus drivers for their per­sonal safety when get­ting on and off the bus,” Perez said. “We all share in that re­spon­si­bil­ity. ”

SAN­TI­AGO FLORES/AP PHO­TOS

Emer­gency per­son­nel re­spond to a scene of a col­li­sion where three chil­dren were killed Oct. 30 cross­ing State Route 25 as they were board­ing their school bus north of Rochester.

Shep­herd

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