In the wake of the death of 5-year-old Aleana Johnson, who was struck and killed by her own school bus on Jan. 9, a community group called Friends of Aleana has begun lobbying for improved school bus safety at Columbia County (Ga.) Schools. The group’s organizer, Gregory Sakata, delivered the following speech to the Columbia County Board of Education on Jan. 23.
Madam Chairman, Board Members, Superintendent Price: Today is an important day in the history of Columbia County. Today is a day when we, the citizens of Columbia County, address the value of our children, who are our most important assets, our most treasured possessions and our representatives for the future of our county, state and country. We alone hold the future of these children in our hands. On Tuesday, Jan. 9, I knelt over the lifeless body of 5-year-old Aleana Johnson, crushed to death under the massive tires of her very own school bus. As I stared into her beautiful young face, I knew at that moment that we needed additional safety measures to ensure the safety of all of our children. What set the wheels into motion allowing this tragedy to occur we may never understand. What we do know is that unless something is done to improve the safety of our school buses and the danger zones that surround them, we take the chance that we will continue to have more of our children laying dead in the middle of a cold, hard street.
Let’s look at technology
With the technology that is available to us, there is absolutely no reason why any more children should needlessly die as a result of being struck down by their own school bus. Video monitors, electronic sensors, motion alarms and engine-disabling devices are all available in today’s marketplace. Any one of these would certainly help in assuring the safety and protection of our children. In addition, programs that put bus monitors, matrons and parent volunteers on our school buses can help protect our children by adding a responsible adult who is there to help maintain order and to assist each child as he or she gets on or off the school bus. Providing extensive and repeated training for our children, their parents, teachers and bus drivers about the danger zones that surround a school bus and the seriousness of school bus safety will instill instinctive actions and reactions where school bus safety issues are concerned. But which of these is the right answer for Columbia County? Which of these will help save the life of another child? As a result of the incident in which Aleana was killed, you have begun to look to third parties for resolution. You have asked outside agencies to come in and tell us what the answers are. Are we really looking in the right places?
Look inside for solutions
If the answers to this question were a snake, it would have bitten us by now. The answers are right before our eyes. Are we so blinded by the costs and manpower restraints that we have overlooked the simplest of solutions in the safety of our own children? First and foremost, we must listen to, appreciate and support our bus drivers. They are on the front lines of bus safety each and every day of the week. They see the problems with the system and often they alone can tell us how to fix it. They watch our children as they get on and off the buses and walk across our streets. Our bus drivers are expected to maintain order on their school buses. At times, these buses can have as many as 40 or 50 children on board who have just been “released,” as my daughter puts it, from school and are rambunctious and eager to get home. We would not even consider putting that many children into a single classroom with only one teacher to handle them. But we expect and require it of our bus drivers? If that isn’t enough, we give the drivers the added responsibility of having to navigate the traffic on our county roads, which are only getting more and more congested with time. We need to trust our bus drivers. They are a part of the answer, not the problem. Secondly, we must change the current safety policies and implement additional safety procedures and devices on our school buses.
Bus monitors are essential
We must have school bus monitors on our school buses. You can argue the point to whatever extent you wish, but facts are facts — had a bus monitor been on Bus #870 on Tuesday, January 9, Aleana Johnson would most likely be alive today. Costs related to programs like this should not be an issue. How can you put a dollar figure on the life of a 5-year-old little girl? We were going to save $350,000 with the new double tracking system. We were going to save time, man hours, bus-use hours. Instead, we killed one of our own children. Lastly, we must support new and effective school bus safety training programs. Ineffective training of our children, parents, teachers and bus drivers only increases the chances of additional deaths and serious injuries to our children. New and revised training programs must be implemented. These training classes need to be conducted consistently on a monthly or a quarterly basis at our schools, and the parents of the children need access to that training material so that they can go over it with their children at home as well. The continual repetition of these training programs will instill safe school bus habits in our children. Simply providing one hour of how to, or how not to, during a gym class once a year is not an effective way to teach these children. Most children won’t even remember what you said five minutes after the class. How can we expect them to remember it for a whole year? There is much more to be said but my time is short tonight. In a few moments you will take into account what you have heard tonight. You will base your decisions on what you think is best for our children. God be with you if you shrug off these necessary changes in our school bus safety policies only to wake tomorrow to find another child laying dead in the middle of one of our streets killed by her own school bus. Gregory Sakata is the organizer of Friends of Aleana (www.aleanajohnson.com) and the father of five children who attend Columbia County Schools.