TALMA — As local schools begin welcoming students back into the classroom this week from summer break, safety at area school bus stops will likely be on everyone’s mind.
The 2018-2019 school year could be seen by many as tragic in terms of bus stop safety, with three Tippecanoe Valley students killed in October, 2018, during an incident that also seriously injured a fourth child. During summer school, Warsaw Community Schools lost one of its own in a tragic car-pedestrian accident near one of the corporation’s elementary schools.
The crash near Talma on Oct. 30, took the lives of 9-year-old Alivia Stahl and her 6-year-old twin brothers, Xzavier and Mason Ingle. A fourth child, Maverik Lowe, who was 11 at the time of the accident, was seriously injured but has continued to recover since being struck by a pickup truck allegedly driven by Alyssa Shepherd. The accident occurred on SR 25 near a mobile home park where the children lived.
Shepherd, facing charges of reckless homicide and criminal recklessness, is scheduled to be tried in Fulton County on Oct. 15.
Following the accident, public outcry and activism from family members of the victims created a stir that was felt at the statehouse. State Sen. Randy Head authored legislation designed to make school bus stops safer and no one was more attentive to the process than Brittany Ingle, 29, mother of the children killed in the accident.
“I feel like we’ve gotten a lot accomplished in the last nine months,” Ingle said. “We got a law passed in Indiana. I guess it’s a blessing, but it got a little bit watered down and I really was hoping for something with a bit more teeth in it.”
Ingle also spoke of three billboards that have been placed along highways in Fulton County, calling on motorists to be on the lookout for the flashing red warning lights of school buses.
“Hopefully with the passing of this law, no family will ever have to experience what we did,” she said. “My kids’ lives had just begun and in the blink of an eye, they were taken from us.”
In addition to the new law and the billboards, a Facebook Page entitled Maxstrong was started by Michael Schwab, the grandfather of the deceased children.
The new state law increases penalties for passing a stopped school bus when that vehicle’s stop arm is engaged. First and second offenses can cost a motorist their license for 90 days or one year respectively and those violations will become class A misdemeanors. For such violations which result in injury, offenders will face a level 6 felony, and a level 5 felony for offenses that result in death.
The law, introduced as Senate Bill 2, was signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb on May 1 and went into effect July 1. Head, who represents parts of Fulton and Kosciusko counties, was the main author of the legislation.
In the legislation, school corporations are also held to task to annually review school bus routes and policies at the start of each year.
In addition to the 2018 tragedy that struck the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation, 8-year-old Gidieon Cook, a soon-to-be third grader at Harrison Elementary School, was struck and killed by a vehicle on Husky Trail June 10. He was returning home after summer school classes.
According to Warsaw Community Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Dr. David Robertson, “WCS continually collaborates with Warsaw Police Department, the city traffic safety commission and additional local authorities to review the safety of its school walking and bus routes.”
Robertson added that school officials learned this summer of construction projects scheduled to begin during the fall of 2019 and said those projects will impact some sidewalks and roads.
The school corporation had recently reduced the number of buses in the area of Harrison Elementary School, but will be adding bussing to accommodate those projects.
“This temporary decision will be reviewed upon completion of the projects,” he said. “Construction is scheduled to begin in future weeks. Crossing guards will continue to be on duty from 8:35 to 9:05 a.m. in the morning and from 3:40 4:10 p.m. in the afternoon at Harrison Elementary. WCS encourages students and families to take advantage of bus transportation during this period of the construction.”
Robertson concluded by addressing a common cause of traffic accidents — distraction.
“WCS reminds the public that the start of the school year means increased pedestrian and bus traffic,” he said. “We ask for the public’s help in ensuring that all students get to and return from school safely. Please refrain from distracted driving and remember to always stop for extended school bus stop arms.”
If the loss of three small children between Talma and Rochester hadn’t been enough to devastate a community and spark law-changing activism, the apparent chain reaction that ensued put the issue on the national radar.
“It sure was a crazy week,” remembered Ingle in reference to the days following the loss of her children. The Talma bus stop crash occurred in the morning hours on a Tuesday, and by the end of the week, five children were dead and six children were injured, along with two adults, in incidents at bus stops in Tupelo, Miss.; Tallahasse, Fla.; Franklin Township, Pa.; and Tampa, Fla.
With a new law in place and billboards reminding motorists to pay attention on the road, Ingle said her activism has helped, but that healing continues and she will always have a hole in her heart that used to be filled with the presence of Alivia, Xzavier and Mason.
“It is hard,” she said. “I’ve been trying to pull myself together because for me, this is not just a story. This is my real life. These were just innocent children.”