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May 28, 2013  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Alabama district’s chief discusses tragedy, recovery

In the months since bus driver Charles Poland was gunned down and a student was taken hostage, Dale County Schools is “doing better with time,” Superintendent Donny Bynum says. Here, he reveals insights on the heartrending episode and describes what has helped his district in the healing process.

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You mentioned that the kids actually went out the front of the bus, whereas it was reported that they had gone out the back. Are there any other misconceptions that were out there that you could clear up?
The main thing is, at first, we heard that Mr. Poland and Mr. Dykes had a confrontation [prior to the incident]. They never had a confrontation. When law enforcement was trying to find someone to help the negotiators who might be a friend of Jimmy Dykes’, he had no friends. The only name that kept coming back to them: Chuck Poland.

I don’t know if you’ve heard this or not, but as a token of appreciation, Mr. Poland took a jar of pepper jelly and a dozen eggs the morning of the shooting [which happened in the afternoon] and a thank-you note and left it at the gate for Mr. Dykes. And this was at the urging of [Poland’s] wife, to show appreciation for doing the turnaround. And like I said, we don’t expect [what Dykes did later that day] from people who befriended us. That’s what makes it so crazy.

I was interested to learn that you worked as a school bus driver instructor at the State Department of Education.
That was four of the best years of my life, working with the department, working with Joe. It gave me the opportunity to get out of Dale County and to work with bus drivers. And I saw how important that part of education is. I loved going from district to district, talking to drivers and stressing to them how important a bus driver’s job is. They set the tone each and every day for those kids on the bus — not only in the morning, but in the afternoon. They’re the last person they see from the school.

So it’s not only the safety part of it, but just the connection that the drivers get to make with children, just like Mr. Chuck Poland. He would be, in my mind, the model bus driver. If you wanted to just mold one, it would be Chuck Poland.

Our department at the state level, they stress that the No. 1 job for a bus driver is safety, without a doubt. They stress procedure; they detail all parts of bus driving. That’s a very professional organization.

I was there from 2004 till 2008, and then I was elected superintendent of Dale County Schools and started my tenure in January of 2009. And I had just started my second term when this happened on the 29th of January.

Do you think that having that experience in school transportation helped in this situation?
It did, because I was very familiar with that part of education. Also, we have an excellent [transportation] supervisor who is very detail oriented.

And my connection with the state department, I’ll say this: On the day of the shooting, Joe, Brad and Mike Morris — who is our instructor from the State Department of Education — they were 200 miles away, but they dropped what they were doing. They stayed on site with us throughout the ordeal. It was invaluable — not only their encouragement, but the strength that they provided in the direction we needed to go.

Once we started school back, we had to start buses back, and certainly there was a cloud in the air, you know, “What are you going to do to keep our children safe?” And we had national and world media there. Joe was very helpful in giving details to what we were doing in that regard, the steps we had in place.

Is there anything else that you want to mention?
We really appreciate all the support we’ve received from throughout the nation. The cards and kind words from transportation departments all across this nation — it has been unreal. Especially Stewart County Schools in Tennessee, which had a bus driver shot [Joyce Gregory, in 2005]. They were very helpful, because they’ve been there.

Looking back, we saw how important that is, that others reached out to us when we were in a time of need. We’re hopeful that we could do that in the future, to help others that are going through similar situations.

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