A South Carolina school bus driver and the students he was transporting are safe after their bus was hijacked on Thursday morning.
The driver was taking the students to Forest Lake Elementary NASA Explorer School in Columbia when a man with a rifle allegedly forced his way onto the bus at a bus stop, Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County Sheriff’s Department said in a press conference held about the incident later that day.
The suspect, identified in the press conference by Lott as Jovan Collazo, 23, a trainee at Fort Jackson Army post, forced the driver to drive the bus. At some point during the time he was on board, Collazo made the driver stop the bus at a bus stop, kicked him and the students off the bus, and drove it a short distance before abandoning it and taking off on foot.
Eighteen students were on the bus when the incident occurred, CNN reports.
In the press conference, which is posted on the Sheriff Department’s Facebook page, Lott said that during a briefing on the incident, bus drivers were referred to as “unsung heroes” and he agreed. Lott did not identify the bus driver but said that he “cared about the children and he used his training” and called him a hero. He also mentioned that Richland School District Two bus drivers recently went through a training on how to deal with an active shooter incident, and that the driver stayed calm, cooperated with the suspect, and was able to de-escalate the situation.
Lott showed brief parts of video of the incident from a school bus camera. The students on the bus, Lott added, stayed calm for the six minutes that the suspect was on board and did what they were trained to do. “I think that contributed to having a successful result,” he said.
Collazo was arrested on Thursday and charged with 19 counts of kidnapping, armed robbery, carjacking, use of a weapon in a violent crime, and unlawful carrying of a weapon on school property.
Also present at the press conference was Dr. Baron R. Davis, the superintendent of Richland School District Two, who discussed “stranger at the bus stop” training, which teaches school bus drivers how to de-escalate incidents.
Lott said in the press conference that school districts give the Sheriff’s Department’s special response team buses to train on to get passengers out safely in situations like this one, but “fortunately, we didn’t have to do that this morning, but we were ready.”
Richland School District Two said in a statement on its website on Thursday that all the students and the bus driver were able to leave the bus safely and were taken to their school where they received support from school employees and counselors and were reunited with their parents or guardians.
“Once we were certain all students were accounted for and physically safe, we immediately began deploying social and emotional counseling resources to the school so that our students could begin the process of healing as they are dealing with a traumatic event,” Davis added in the statement. “We will continue to provide counseling services for the students and their families, our bus driver, and employees as long as necessary. We will also cooperate fully with law enforcement as they investigate this incident fully.”
During the pursuit of the suspect, according to the statement, multiple schools in the area were placed into lockout as a precaution. A lockout, the statement explained, means students outside were brought inside, and no one could enter or leave the building. During a lockout, the activities of the school day continue as scheduled.
The driver's calm response exemplified the training he received through a Safe Pupil Training course, according to the district’s statement. The course is required training for Richland School District Two bus drivers.
“We are so fortunate and grateful that this incident ended peacefully thanks to the actions of our bus driver, our students, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, the City of Columbia Police Department, the South Carolina Highway Patrol, and other first responders,” Davis said.
For more details, watch the press conference on the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page below.