School Bus Death

Author: David Chanen, Maria Elena Baca, Staff Writers

Copyright Star Tribune Newspaper of the Twin Cities May 09, 1996

An eighth-grader at Franklin Middle School in north Minneapolis who was leaning out a school bus window to shout to friends was killed Wednesday when the bus began to move and his head slammed against a tree.

School officials were still trying to reconstruct exactly what happened to Charles Johnson, 13, who friends described as a popular boy with a "special something" that made people smile.

"My heart goes out to the family," said Mickey Johnson, director of transportation for the school district.

As the bus driver pulled away from a stop at 26th and Irving Avs. N. about 4 p.m., Charles, who was sitting in the rearmost seat of the bus, apparently was unaware of the tree, which was "very close to the bus," Mickey Johnson said. Many children on the bus started yelling that the boy was hurt, and the driver immediately stopped and radioed for help.

Another school bus driver in the area boarded Charles' bus after noticing it had stopped a few feet into an intersection. He tried to administer first aid, but the boy had no vital signs.

Charles was pronounced dead at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. The school's assistant principal, Kay Bonczek, was there to comfort the family. The Hennepin County medical examiner's office reported that he died of massive head and neck injuries.

Marlon Thomas, 14, who had just gotten off of the bus, said he thought Charles had pulled himself into the bus in time. He heard someone yelling, "Charles is hurt! Charles is hurt!"

Mickey Johnson said he can't recall the last time a student in Minnesota died in a similar accident, but said he has heard of it happening in other states. Johnson stressed that even the district's youngest students are told that "you never stick your hands and head out of the window."

"Every year, every day, we emphasize this. They're trained time and time again and the rules are posted in the bus," he said.

Johnson said there are "a whole lot of things going on once the bus driver leaves a stop." He has to look at kids, the mirror, check traffic that is approaching and following the bus, and make sure the kids are safely away from it.

"There are 10, 12 things going on," he said. "This happened in a split second. I doubt any driver would proceed if a child was hanging out the window."

Johnson said even when a driver does everything to ensure the students' safety, it's possible that an accident could occur right after making checks. The driver works for Ryder Student Transportation Services, which contracts 225 buses to the school district. A company spokesperson was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

"Without knowing all the facts, I would never jump to the conclusion that the bus driver was at fault," said Paula Forbes, general counsel for the district. "Our drivers work very hard and are trained on safety issues. My assumption {was that} he was doing everything he was supposed to be doing and it was just a freak accident."

She said that the accident was "incredibly devastating" and that the staff at Franklin Middle School was setting up crisis intervention teams with grief counselors to help students deal with Charles' death.

Even with the district's annual bus safety week, she said, it might take a tragedy like this to show kids the consequences of what can happen when they don't follow the rules.

The scene where Charles died was packed with schoolchildren, even some from different neighborhoods, who stood on the corner across the street from the school bus. Most were grieving quietly, in groups of three or four, offering hugs and hands. Passersby, seeing the bus and the yellow police tape, asked whether another kid had died and shook their heads at the answer.

Friends said Charles was a smart and kind kid who liked to play basketball and flirt with girls. Another friend said he "was like everybody's best friend at school."

"He did not deserve this," said 13-year-old Shayla Lynn. "He was very close to his family. He was looking forward to going to high school."

Kelly Marcel, who lives on the corner where the accident occurred, was on the phone when she heard kids yelling. She looked out of the window and thought someone had been sprayed with Mace "because kids were just spilling out of the bus with their hands over their faces." Some ran to her house and asked her to call an ambulance.

"As far as I know he {the bus driver} was still on the bus. I never did see him," she said.

Rebecca Williamson, one of the Johnson family's neighbors on the 1200 block of Penn Av. N., said Charles was "a happy boy, a good boy." She talked about his parents, Modine and Charles, his sister and two brothers, and about how he enjoyed playing basketball with them.

"He respected me every day," she said. "He didn't talk much about the future because he was too busy laughing and playing basketball."

Forbes said she was frustrated by the incident because "you go so long with good safety and no problems, then you have two devastating incidents in a short period of time." The other incident she was referring to was the death of Amanda Perkins, a 13-year-old Northeast Middle School student who was killed last month when she jumped or fell from a Minneapolis school bus emergency exit. It has been questioned whether the bus driver didn't follow several safety procedures that could have prevented her death.

In the Perkins accident, the district was notified that the family retained a lawyer, but no formal legal action has been taken. She said that in Wednesday's accident, the district's liability is "secondary to what the family is going through right now."