Donny Bynum, superintendent of Dale County Schools, says an event at the Alabama State Department of Education that honored bus driver Charles Poland and his passengers was “an incredible day in the healing process.”
On Jan. 29, 2013, the unthinkable happened in Midland City, Ala.
A man boarded a school bus and demanded hostages. Bus driver Charles Poland resisted, standing in the aisle to block gunman Jimmy Lee Dykes from the students on the bus. After several minutes in a standoff, Dykes fatally shot Poland and then kidnapped 5-year-old Ethan.
Dykes held Ethan in a bunker on his property for nearly a week. With negotiations having deteriorated, on Feb. 4, FBI agents stormed the bunker and rescued the boy. Dykes was killed during the operation.
For the school district, Dale County Schools, moving on after such a shocking and lengthy crisis — which drew intense media coverage and captivated the nation and beyond — is no easy task.
Two months after Ethan was rescued, Superintendent Donny Bynum spoke with SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon, sharing details about the incident, the recovery process and his background in training bus drivers.
SBF: How is your school district recovering from the hostage incident earlier this year?
DONNY BYNUM: We are doing better with time. We are healing. It is a process. The most gratifying two days that we’ve had since this incident — No. 1 has been with the State Department of Education and the resolution that our State Board of Education has passed honoring not only Mr. Chuck Poland, but the students that were on his bus.
Mr. Joe Lightsey, our state director [of pupil transportation], helped to spearhead that. That was the first day that Mrs. Poland got to meet the students that rode Chuck’s bus. You talk about an emotional connection. There was not a dry eye in the room. Dr. [Thomas] Bice [state superintendent of education], he was very emotional when he read the resolution. That was an incredible day in the healing process.
And the next day, at Midland City Elementary School, which was little Ethan’s base school, we had a celebration of life. We had a little assembly. That was very emotional, too, because we not only honored Mr. Poland and the legacy that he left behind, but we honored those students.
I’m telling you, the school bus driver training in Alabama is incredible. The lead FBI agent, Steve Richardson, told us — and Joe Lightsey and Brad Holley [also with the State Department of Education’s pupil transportation office] were present — that whatever you guys are doing, you continue doing it, because it was incredible. Those children were trained to assist each other in the evacuation procedures, and that was very evident that day.
After Mr. Poland was murdered, those older students ... I know it says in some reports that they went out the back of the bus — they didn’t. They came out the front door after Mr. Poland was shot. The way that happened was the bus was parked on a slope. It was backed up to turn around, and the back of the bus was uphill. The perpetrator grabbed Ethan and left the bus and went at a backwards angle, and the children kept looking out the window thinking he might come back. So the older kids helped to get the younger kids off the bus because the younger kids froze up in their seats. And they waited and assisted all of the students to get off of the bus and down the hill safely.
I’m going to tell you about one hero on that bus, a student who called 911 — a 16-year-old by the name of Tre. He was incredible in his 911 conversation. He was so calm, cool and deliberate for 10 minutes. It was unreal. He was very descriptive in where the bus was, the name of the bus.
The dispatcher from 911 had only been on the job for two months, and she was breaking down, especially after the gunfire. She was very emotional, but Tre remained calm. And Tre had only been on the bus for two weeks. He had just moved here from Jacksonville, North Carolina.
So those two days were very, very important in the healing process. And I want to say this about Mrs. Poland: She spoke to the FBI agents that showed up at Midland City. Not only did she thank them for the job that they did, but for the wisdom that they were given, and how God used them to not only save Ethan but to make that process go so smoothly. I mean, she’s an incredible lady, and you can see the strength growing in her. God has really touched her and is using her, because she’s told those students they are her students now, and she’s moving forward. We are all gaining strength from her, and we’re just leaning on each other.