Keys bring message about school bus safety

Published 1:00 pm Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The parents of Nathan Key, the 5-year-old child killed in 2009 when a motorist passed a stopped school bus, brought their message on school bus safety to the Poplarville School District recently.

Poplarville school bus drivers at the Middle School of Poplarville listened intently as the Keys told their tragic story of Nathan’s death and subsequent efforts to increase school bus safety and awareness.

The pain of that tragedy led Lori and Andy Key of Scott County to begin a campaign to tighten school bus safety laws and increase penalties. The result was Nathan’s Law, which went into effect July 1, 2011.

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They didn’t stop there. Lori Key said they have been all over the state meeting students and school bus drivers.

Key said their ordeal began on a day when Andy Key was preparing to deploy with the National Guard. She was waiting for the school bus that afternoon before the family was to leave to attend a yellow ribbon ceremony for departing guardsmen on the Gulf Coast.

“Little did I know that I would watch someone pass Nathan’s stopped school bus and strike him as he was crossing the street,” she said.

The 2009 tragedy completely changed not only the family’s life but that of the 31 other students on the bus who saw the incident, she said.

Andy Key said at that time the penalty for passing a school bus was only a $250 fine.

“I had difficulty with that,” he said. “I miss Nathan every day. Not a day goes by. . . and if you’ve never experienced it, thank God, and I hope none of you ever do.” Ultimately, the driver that hit Nathan was convicted of culpable negligent manslaughter and sentenced to 22 years in jail, where he remains at this time.

“This is something that should be a hundred percent preventable … it’s getting on a bus and off a bus, coming to school and going home from school — that shouldn’t be a life or death situation. “I don’t want another kid to die,” he said, noting that nationwide an average of 15 to 18 children a year are killed while getting on and off school buses.

Andy Key said the law covers the grades kindergarten through third grade. They initially wanted grades K-12 covered but settled for K-3 because 85 percent of the deaths and injuries fell in that age group.

Lori Key said even though they settled for K-3, the danger of driver’s passing a bus is not restricted to younger children and said some older students were not familiar with these issues for various reasons and needed the instructions. She cited a recent incident in which a 17-year-old student in North Carolina was killed by a motorist passing a stopped bus.

Lori Key said it took two years after Nathan’s death to get a stricter school bus safety law passed in Mississippi, even though it was not all that they wanted. The Keys’ labors also have resulted in versions of Nathan’s Law being passed in nine other states and legislative efforts are underway in three other states.

Under the new law, the fine for passing a bus, first offense, is no less than $350 and up to $750 and/or up to one year in jail. A second offense minimum fine is $750 up to $1,500 and/or up to a year in jail with suspension of a license for 90 days.

If a child is injured, he said the charge is a felony that could result in up to 20 years prison time.

“We want to send a message that you don’t pass a stopped school bus,” he said, and told the assembled drivers that under Nathan’s Law, all they need to do is get the tag number of the vehicle that passed the bus.

The message has an education component that needs to include everyone — children, parents, bus drivers — because each has a part in the safety formula, she said.

An important change because of Nathan’s Law, she said, will be in the Mississippi driver’s license test.

”Never in the history of the state of Mississippi has anyone gone to test to get their driver’s license and had to answer a question about a school bus.”

In the state education system, a curriculum centering on school bus safety has been developed that will be taught in the schools, and school bus safety has been added to student driver training, she said. There will be updates to school bus driver handbooks.

Lori Key also said children need to be taught what they can and can’t do when getting on or off a school bus and suggested they should be given pink slips if they break the rules. “Let their parents know they’re (the students) not doing what they’re supposed to.”

Andy Key said the couple will present this safety message any time they can. “We do it as often as we get the opportunity.” He said in 2012 they presented the message to about 7,000 students and estimated in the last three years they averaged presenting their message to 3,000 to 4,000 children just in Mississippi.

“If I could be at every school every day, I’d do it. If I had to talk to every person in the state individually, I’m going to do it. It’s just time to do it, and we can only do so much,” he said. People can go to Nathan’s for further information, Andy Key said.

Nathan’s Legacy is a non-profit foundation that has been set up to address getting funding for cameras or tag readers.

“It all boils down to money,” Andy Key said. “I can get really worked up about it because you can’t put a price. If it costs $10 million dollars and it saves one child’s life, it’s worth it.”

He said that was why the law was delayed, because of increases for funding if cameras were required to be installed on the buses.

A district driver said, “You would think since we’re talking about the safety of our children this would be a priority.”

“Yes, you would think,” Andy Key said. “Welcome to my frustration. You would think they would.”

Another driver said, “They never lost a child.”

“No, ma’am. And if they ever had, they wouldn’t care (what the cost was),” Andy Key said. He said the goal is to get external cameras on every school bus in the state.

Lori Key said legislation allowing external cameras on school buses was passed, but they were not mandated. She said Lamar County School District has purchased tag scanners at approximately $350 per scanner that will record a license plate.

Ed Sternod, school district transportation director, said we all want to keep the children safe, “Whatever it takes, within the law.” He said there are approximately 800 stops made by Poplarville district school buses every day.

There are different scanners and cameras available from several companies, the Keys said, but there are many factors, including cost, that affect what can be done.

A part of the law says if the bus driver or a law enforcement officer or agency gets the tag of a car that passes a bus and it is recorded, the owner of the vehicle is liable for passing the bus, whether they were driving the vehicle or not.

He understands that is hard for the bus drivers because they have to be focused on several things at the same time. He said possibly a student on the bus could be designated as a “bus tag watcher.”

Andy Keys said if the drivers get a tag number and nothing happens, “You call me. I’ll make sure that something happens with it because that’s the whole purpose of this. We want people to understand that’s just something they can’t do.”

He also said bus drivers should not use cell phones or other similar devices except in an emergency, when he assumed the bus would be stopped at that point, anyway. Nathan’s Law states that if a law enforcement officer sees such devices being used by a bus driver while the bus is underway, it is a misdemeanor and carries a $500 fine for the driver and climbs to $1,000 if an accident results, Andy Key said.

Sternod said school policy prohibited use of such devices, including earpieces.

Poplarville School District Superintendent Carl Merritt said the district has implemented Nathan’s Law, and that students are being taught about the law and that instruction will be mandated in health and driver’s education classes. He said the district is working to add more surveillance equipment in the district’s buses that already have interior cameras.