Ten years after a man stormed a Dale County, Alabama, school bus, shooting its driver and taking a 5-year-old boy hostage for nearly seven days, Michael Smith can still remember where he was when he learned trouble was on the horizon.
Smith, now the district transportation supervisor and attendance officer, was the assistant principal at Dale County High School in January 2013. His duty station, where he stood to ensure daily school bus pickups and drop-offs were going smoothly at the high school, was toward the back of the bus lane. He had some small talk with Charles “Chuck” Poland, one of the school bus drivers, before he pulled away to begin his afternoon route.
Ten to 15 minutes later, a man named Jimmy Lee Dykes would force his way onto Poland’s bus, demanding he hand over two children onboard. When Poland refused, an angry Dykes set his sights on Ethan Gilman, a young boy sitting behind the driver. Poland put himself between the boy and Dykes, refusing to hand him over. That ultimately led to Poland’s death, with Dykes shooting him several times, before taking the boy to an underground bunker on his property, where he would stay for nearly a week.
Back at the high school, Smith was sitting at his desk in his office, talking to the principal, when he got the first call. A teacher, stuck in traffic near where the incident had just occurred, saw a group of children running down a hill, away from a school bus just off of a dirt road. She called Smith to see if he knew what was going on.
Before Smith could hang up and call law enforcement to see if they had any information, the police chief called the principal with the only information they had at the time: a school bus driver had been shot. Smith and the principal jumped in a school bus, with Smith, who held a CDL, at the wheel. When they arrived at a nearby church, they gathered the children onto the bus to take them back to the school. The photo below, which became one of the most memorable photos from that incident, shows the bus Smith drove parked outside the church.
Before Smith and the students could pull away, parents began hearing about what happened and arrived to pick their children up.
After that, hundreds of federal agents arrived in Midland City, using that church as their command post while they negotiated with Dykes, who refused to cooperate. After almost seven days, the FBI’s hostage rescue team breached the roof of Dykes’ bunker and exchanged gunfire with him, killing him, and rescuing Ethan, who was unharmed.
School Bus Incidents in the News: Why the Sudden Spike?
Incidents involving unwanted guests on school buses seem to be on the rise. Between stories of parents jumping onto buses to yell at drivers or students, there are even more alarming headlines, like an incident in early May where CBS News reported that feuding Mexican drug cartels briefly blocked roads in a Texas border city, with gunmen forcing middle school students off a school bus to use it as a blockade.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, WJLA reported that three masked teens hopped on a school bus in another recent incident, targeting a 14-year-old boy onboard, the last remaining student on the bus. One of the teens pointed a gun at the boy, pulling the trigger three times. When the gun misfired all three times, the attackers physically beat the boy.
What’s the reason for the sudden spike in these kinds of incidents? It’s a combination of things, says Joe Redmond, First Student’s senior manager of security. He supports First Student’s security for its 600-plus physical locations and over 50,000 drivers.
School buses are often dismissed as a threat, with districts typically putting the bulk of their focus and funding on keeping school buildings secure. But the same risks that exist for school buildings exist on school buses. Especially with an increase in mental health crises and people looking for places to take out their anger.
In the digital age, technology can also lead to an increase in incidents on the big yellow bus. When a student texts or calls their parent to let them know they have been bullied or they feel that their driver was mean to them, that parent is instantly notified – at least of the child’s side of the story.
As their driver pulls up to their bus stop, unaware of what has been communicated to the parent – or even unaware that something has happened among students on the bus, the parent is ready to discuss it with the driver, or even the offending student(s). Tensions can escalate very quickly. And before anyone has a chance to blink, an unwanted guest or guests are on the bus, ready to respond to the information they’ve received. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Preparing Drivers for the Inevitable
It seems to no longer be a question of “if” these incidents will occur, but “when.” Preparing drivers to handle them and de-escalate them is crucial. However, it can be difficult to give someone guidance because it’s impossible to prepare people for every possible scenario. But there is one simple process that drivers can always go back to: run, hide, fight.
This doesn't mean drivers should run away and abandon students on the bus. Drivers should ask themselves: can I safely evacuate the passengers? If so, then that is the safest option. Passengers should be prepared to use all methods to evacuate safely.
Encourage students to leave their belongings behind and move quickly, but safely when evacuating.
“If you have the ability to run away and protect yourself, that is the key thing that we would recommend doing first,” Redmond explained. “If running is not an option, try to secure the bus and try to get the kids down below the seats and below the windows, and calling for help.”
That call should be made immediately, Redmond said. It’s important to bring your district or private contractor up to speed with what’s happening so they are ready to help if and when they are needed.
“And then comes the fight part. That, to me is your last resort, to say ‘I have no other options.’ At that point, you have to take matters into your own hands, and use every tool at your disposal to protect yourself in a self-defense type situation and do what you need to do,” Redmond explained.
As an incident occurs, Redmond urges them to remember their education, experiences, age, physical ability, and training, and factor those into the decision-making process to keep the situation from escalating even more.
“It may seem like a lot in the heat of the moment. But that is the how important it is to prepare drivers, whether public or private, through scenario-based training, so they can start to make those physiological connections in their head, like, ‘Oh, I remember this is an option, and I can use it before the situation occurs,’” Redmond said.
Preventing Unwanted Guests from Entering the Bus
Redmond advises drivers to constantly be on the lookout at bus stops to identify potential threats. That can be as simple as someone standing too close to the doors at a bus stop. He encourages drivers to be prepared to ask people politely and professionally to move back.
After the hostage incident, the Alabama legislature signed the Charles “Chuck” Poland, Jr., Act. Under the law, named in Poland’s memory, anyone who stops, impedes, damages, or enters a school bus who is unauthorized to do so can face up to one year in a jail, as well as a large fine. Every Dale County school bus has a sticker next to the doors with that law.
Across Alabama, when prospective drivers attend training classes, they are trained to be keenly aware of their surroundings during the loading and unloading process. They are taught to be aware of the number of students entering and exiting, as well as potential threats outside the bus. This helps the drivers cut down on the time the doors are open, Alabama Director of Pupil Transportation Chad Carpenter said.
In Dale County, drivers are also trained to close the doors immediately after the final student enters or exits the bus. If a parent has something they’d like to discuss with the driver, they may only have a quick conversation with the driver through the side window, to keep the doors closed and the students and driver secure. Drivers are also encouraged to remind parents of the Charles “Chuck” Poland, Jr., Act.
Redmond also tells drivers to use that side window. It allows the drivers to be in control of who has access to the bus. The longer the doors are open, the more quickly a situation can escalate.
“Looking at those types of events and preparing for them ahead of time is key to preventing [larger incidents from happening],” Redmond explained.
Changing Procedures After the Midland City Hostage Incident
Investigators believe Dykes planned his attack on the school bus long before it occurred. Dale County school officials believe the same. Smith said Dykes always allowed Poland to turn his bus around on his property, he believes, to lure him in and make his property seem like a safe place for the bus. In some cases, Smith said Dykes even offered Poland vegetables.
After the hostage incident, the district changed its school bus turnaround procedures. Buses are now only allowed to turn around in public places – they cannot turn around on private land.
Smith encourages drivers to be keenly aware of their surroundings, and to make safe decisions, even if someone seems safe.
“Don’t be fooled by someone’s ill intentions of wanting to give you something or offer you something. We really try to enforce that with our drivers,” Smith explained.
Dale County drivers are also advised that if someone tries to force their way onto a school bus, they should get in contact with the district and drive to the nearest police station.
All district employees wear ID badges. Drivers are trained to require any school officials who walk up to buses to identify themselves using their badges.
The Dale County pupil transportation office has a photo of Poland on the wall to remind employees of the ultimate sacrifice he paid to protect his students. Between the photo and the Charles “Chuck” Poland, Jr., Act, drivers are constantly aware of the dangers they could face, so they are reminded to always be prepared.
When possible, Redmond encourages districts and private contractors to install emergency buttons. While two-way radios are a great tool, bus drivers may not always be in a position to verbally call for help. Other types of equipment, like remote monitoring of video systems or an alert if a bus leaves its route can also help.
Don’t Forget Your Job
The core responsibility of bus drivers is to bring students to and from school safely. That will inevitably involve some kind of incident mitigation at some point.
While situations as drastic as a hostage crisis may seem like they could never reach your school bus, it’s crucial to be prepared in case they do.