MIDLAND CITY, Ala. — A school bus driver is dead and a student has been taken hostage in an alarming incident here that began on Tuesday.
A man identified by neighbors as Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, allegedly boarded a school bus on Tuesday and demanded two children between the ages of 6 and 8. When school bus driver Charles Albert Poland Jr. refused, he was fatally shot.
The suspect then took a 5-year-old kindergartner and retreated to a bunker on his property.
“We are extending our hearts and prayers for the safe return of one our students, and we are mourning a hero, 66-year-old Charles Poland, who gave his life to protect 21 students who are now home safely with their families,” Dale County Schools Superintendent Donny Bynum said in a statement on Wednesday.
Multiple law enforcement agencies responded to the incident and, as of the latest information available, were still in a standoff with the suspect on Wednesday afternoon.
"At this time, law enforcement has extended the evacuation area to ensure the safety of those living in the immediate area," Dothan Police Sgt. Rachel David said in a statement.
Media reports said that authorities had made contact with the child hostage through a PVC pipe in the bunker.
Neighbors told the Dothan Eagle that Dykes didn’t appear to know the student he allegedly took from the bus and doesn’t have kids of his own.
Michael Creel, Dykes’ neighbor, told the newspaper that he tried to catch Dykes when he was told what direction he had gone, but he apparently missed the suspect before he reached the bunker.
“He’s got a 4-foot-wide, about 6-foot-long, 8-foot-deep homemade bomb shelter,” Creel told the Dothan Eagle. “It’s got about 3 to 4 feet of sand on top of it. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t [notice it].”
Dykes had recently been charged with menacing neighbors and had been scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday.
Dale County Schools and the local Ozark City Schools closed on Wednesday for the rest of the week.
Bynum, the Dale County Schools superintendent, said that Poland had been a full-time bus driver for the district for four years and was “well-loved by all of us here. … He was a valuable member of our transportation department, and we will forever remember [him] for the bravery he showed yesterday.”
Bynum said that the responding law enforcement agencies “are doing everything within their powers to see to the safe release of this 6-year-old kindergarten student.” (More recent reports say that the student is 5.)
The district activated its student support services and is to have counselors coming in on Friday to help students.
The National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) on Wednesday issued a statement about the Alabama incident.
“Once again, our nation confronts a senseless, horrific tragedy that involves one of our most trusted public services,” the association said. “We mourn the loss of one of our own, and we lament the terrifying situation children witnessed.
“School bus drivers are trained in situational awareness, safety and security. But in a free society there are unlimited opportunities for those bent on inflicting harm, and the most vulnerable often are the targets.”
NAPT officials noted that they are working with others nationally to develop strategies to make schools and school transportation safer and more secure in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Connecticut in December.
“Now, that conversation will be expanded,” the association said. “Clearly, this incident re-sounds the clarion call for a serious national conversation about safety and security in education. School buses are our safest mode of transportation. But they must also be as secure as possible. Our children and grandchildren also ride in school buses, and we are pledged to nothing less than the highest security standards for the children entrusted to us each school day, and those who drive them."
NAPT said that it will provide relevant resources and education, particularly at its annual Summit in Grand Rapids, Mich., this fall. The association also encouraged those interested in becoming involved in these efforts to go to www.napt.org/safetyandsecurity.
In his daily e-newsletter, pupil transportation consultant Dick Fischer called it a “sad day in the school bus world” and suggested that the industry “lower our flags at each school bus transportation center to half-staff in honor of Mr. Poland.”
As previously reported, a bill that was pre-filed in the Alabama Legislature would establish trespassing on school buses as a Class B misdemeanor. The bill was scheduled for a first read on Feb. 5.
The hostage situation continued on Thursday, with the 5-year-old student and the man who took him from the school bus still in the bunker. WSFA released a video clip in which a negotiator can be heard urging the suspect to come out. "This isn't going to end itself," the negotiator can be heard saying. "Please exit the shelter and come back out. Lower any weapon you have, place it on the ground and come and speak with law enforcement. We are not going away."
Meanwhile, community members have been holding prayer vigils. Family and friends have been sharing memories of school bus driver Charles Poland, who was remembered as caring and helpful to others. "He was a good Christian man," Linda Williams, whose cousin was married to Poland, told NBC News.