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.
[PAGEBREAK]As you mentioned, the students had clearly been trained well. Have you made any changes since this incident, in terms of training or policies?
Not really. The thing about it is, in the school business, we’re used to our adversaries, but in this situation, it was not an adversary. This guy, he befriended Mr. Poland. The day before, on the bus video, you can hear the conversation: He said, “Do you like broccoli? I’ll have you some broccoli tomorrow.” And then on Tuesday, when he stepped up on the bus with the broccoli and handed him the note [asking for children], I guess in his mind, he thought Mr. Poland was just going to turn two or three kids over to him.
But as far as our training, we do stress to our folks to be vigilant and not to carry on conversations at bus pickups or drop-off points. We don’t want to be in a bubble. Certainly if little Johnny forgot his lunchbox, we want to take that. But for any detailed conversation, we need to have that in a different place: either at the school or the district office.
I read that the perpetrator had had some communication with Mr. Poland about his driveway.
The dirt road that this happened on is a private road that is not county maintained. It was not a thoroughfare; you had to turn around. This guy [Dykes], he cleaned the turnaround spot with a shovel. The day before the shooting, after the conversation between Mr. Poland and Mr. Dykes, the kids asked, “What did he want?” “What did he want?” And Mr. Poland said, “He’s the guy that cleaned this turnaround spot with his shovel during the Christmas holiday.”
I’ve been there; I’ve seen the site. It is an incredible masterpiece as far as how he did it with a shovel. It’s very methodical, very well thought out. And that was the only turnaround on that private road. But since then, the bus does not go up that road.
Tell me about some of your initial thoughts when you first found out that day what was happening.
Disbelief. Shock. The magnitude of when we arrived to the scene, and to see those children — it gives me chill bumps to think of what they witnessed. We had 21 students on there, from first grade up to 12th grade. I could not get my mind off of them for nights.
We stayed at the hostage situation every night from Tuesday to the following Monday, and not only did I visualize what those children saw, but also the bravery of Mr. Poland. The FBI agents who had viewed the video [of the standoff on the bus] — I haven’t viewed the video yet — said that the action Mr. Poland took was incredible.
Also, I couldn’t get my mind off of Ethan and his mother. His father is deceased. Him being in that bunker, [I was] thinking, what is his mother going through?
I had the honor to speak at Mr. Poland’s funeral the following Sunday. That was an incredible task. God gave me power to stand up there and say the right words, and I was awestruck at the strength of Mrs. Poland and her family.
And I’m telling you this: I cannot say enough about our community. We all felt like we were captive. We all felt like we were part of the Poland family. Our community reached out not only in food and physical support, but prayer. It was just unreal how we as a community came together.
It sounds like faith has been a big part of getting through this.
There is no doubt. We couldn’t make it without God. I’ve had an opportunity to speak at a couple of places, and they would ask me, “How did you endure?” “How did you as a district stand up?” I said, “Listen, we didn’t do this. God did this. God did every bit of it.” We could certainly feel the prayers.
I’ll long remember this: Mrs. Poland, she looked in those FBI agents’ eyes and told them, “Every day that my husband and I were married [43 years] … we always told each other we loved each other.” And she looked at them straight in their eyes, and she said, “You tell your wives that every day, because you are not promised another minute.” And those grown men, while she was talking to them, they had tears. We all had tears coming down from our eyes, because she was just speaking from her heart.
[PAGEBREAK]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.