Monday marks 10 weeks since the school year began and already 2 children have been killed at school bus stops in North Carolina. In one case a driver is charged with felony death by vehicle. The state Highway Patrol is catching more drivers passing buses illegally with Operation Stop Arm and there's a good chance now if you choose to put children's lives in danger at bus stops you'll be caught on camera.
7-year-old Janell Simmons life was cut tragically short at her bus stop in Edgecombe County August 30th.
"Unfortunately that day my baby decided to go to the highway and she was yelled at to come back, but she made a... I hate to say she made a bad decision, but she made a choice," said Janell's grandfather Danny Simmons.
Even with her grandparents just feet away and her 4 siblings next to her, they couldn't stop Janell from running in front of a truck that hit and killed her that foggy morning. The truck driver told authorities he was watching the group of kids waiting on the other side of the road. The driver was not charged. Simmons says he doesn't blame anyone.
"It really helped us to understand the short term of life, that every moment is precious to us. You can't take things for granted no more," said Simmons. "I hope it helped a lot of other people see how valuable and how precious life is.
Janell was killed right in front of her grandparents home on Highway 43 near Rocky Mount. In fact, when WITN contacted her grandfather to talk to him about the fatal wreck, that same day we found out another little boy was killed outside his home at his school bus stop just 60 miles down I-95 in Harnett County 8 weeks to the day Janell was killed."
12 year old Adam Kempf was killed when he tried to board his school bus on Highway 27 just outside of Coats the morning of October 25th. Lawmen say he was hit by a work van driven by Fernando Ortiz Soto. Soto is charged with felony death by motor vehicle. Adam was killed the week after the Highway Patrol's week long Operation Stop Arm effort. The boy's mother is left asking: why?
"Why did you not stop? What was so rushed to be there?" asked Kempf.
Highway Patrol troopers are working to catch drivers who do not obey the law when they see the stop arm and stop sign out and the red lights flashing. Cameras mounted on school buses help them in that effort. Video we got from a Rowan County school bus shows the stop arm out, and a car which has plenty of time to stop blow by the bus right before a girl crosses the road.
Troopers say education for drivers and talking to your children are key to preventing more deaths and injuries at bus stops.
"Parents need to be somewhat an educational role as well as teaching their children how to behave at a bus stop- to not be playing pushing and shoving because we have had kids get pushed out in front of a bus or in front of an oncoming car," said Trooper Jeff Collins.
In Trooper Collins' 28 and a half years patrolling highways in the east he says he's witnessed hundreds of people blowing by stopped buses illegally.
"It's 2 things: distractions or impatience. A lot of people don't want to get behind. They have a regimented schedule in the mornings or afternoons and they don't want to get behind a bus, but then they tend to forget the importance of the buses and the cargo that they're carrying."
Last year in just one day North Carolina school bus drivers counted nearly 37-hundred violations with 13,658 buses on the road. With 50 more buses on the road this year, there was some improvement, with 480 fewer drivers seen illegally passing.
In eastern carolina, Beaufort County saw the largest increase in stop arm violations: 14 more than last year. Pitt and Carteret counties also saw increases. The biggest decrease was in Onslow County with a huge drop from last year's 109 violations down to 43 this year. Duplin, Martin, Craven, Jones and Washington counties also had fewer violations. Hyde and Tyrrell had no violations. Pamlico reported one. These numbers have parents, school leaders, and troopers hopeful Operation Stop Arm is making a difference and saving lives.
"We want people to be as careful as they can so we don't have to go to those parents. We don't have to go to the hospitals, and we don't have to have these kids being traumatized on something that is unnecessary," said Collins.
Janell's grandfather hopes parents help their children avoid tragedy.
"I'm lost for words to why, but I don't question my lord neither so I stopped asking why and I said lord take me to understanding so I'm in the understanding mode of that, but as far as trying to help other people with it. Talk to your children. Talk to them, and love them."
Pastor Simmons says Edgecombe County Schools changed the route for his three youngest grandkids so they don't have to cross the street, and he's working on getting signs to tell drivers there's a bus stop ahead. Passing a stopped school bus is a 5-point license violation and carries a maximum $200 fine. A state law that went into effect in 2009 raised the penalty for hitting and killing someone after passing a stopped school bus, to 5-6 months in prison for offenders with no criminal record.