CLARK COUNTY — With local schools back in session, Clark County law enforcement will be taking extra steps to protect kids as they are getting on and off buses.
Clark County is among 29 counties in Indiana receiving aid to increase safety at school bus stops and school zones. Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Monday that police departments across the state will receive $380,000 in grants from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. The grant includes $10,000 for the Clark County Traffic Safety Partnership, which includes the Clark County Sheriff's Office and police departments in Jeffersonville, Sellersburg, Charlestown and Clarksville.
“Indiana police officers will be enforcing increased fines and penalties for drivers who recklessly pass bus stops and drive aggressively,” Holcomb said in a press release. “This is one of many steps that Indiana is taking to protect the safety of school children as classes resume.”
Sgt. Terry Braswell, an officer with the Sellersburg Police Department, is the coordinator for the Clark County Traffic Safety Partnership. For a two-week period later this month, each agency will be able to have extra officers available to patrol communities for school zone and stop arm violations due to the grant. Officers will be working overtime during these patrols to catch violations at bus stops, as well as speeding and aggressive driving near school zones.
Clark County's crackdown on school stop violations will be similar to the partnership's mobilization efforts against impaired and dangerous driving, according to Braswell. He said each agency will determine which areas to patrol in the mornings and afternoons.
Lawmakers also passed state legislation at this year's General Assembly to increase penalties for school bus arm infractions, and it went into effect in July. The legislation followed a bus stop accident that killed three siblings in Rochester last fall.
According to state law, school bus drivers are required to use flashing lights and to extend the bus's stop arm when students are crossing a roadway, and drivers are required to stop when the arm is extended. Under the new law, if drivers illegally pass a stopped school bus, they can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, and if the action injures someone, the penalty increases to a Level 6 felony. If drivers illegally pass a stopped bus and kill someone, they can be charged with a Level 5 felony.
A 2019 survey from the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services shows 2,653 illegal passes reported in one day in Indiana, with 6,863 bus drivers participating in the survey.
Braswell said the goal of Clark County law enforcement is make sure students get to and from school safely and prevent tragedies, in addition to educating the public on laws and school stop safety.
"If you have questions about whether or not to stop, just stop," Braswell said. "Always err on side of caution when it comes to kids. If you don’t know, ask."
Sellersburg Police Chief Russ Whelan said while officers on normal duty are always looking for violations in school zones or bus stop arm infractions, it will help to have extra officers on-hand in overtime hours to address the issue. He said the department typically gets a few complaints per month about these violations, but there are likely many that are unreported.
"It's not one of our biggest complaints that we get, but it's a complaint we get every school year," he said. "It's generally speeding, but the bus arm violation is a big one. Both are problems, but the bus arm one really really concerns me with kids out in the road and getting ready to cross."
Whelan emphasizes that people can be arrested for bus stop arm violations, and he said they will not get off with a warning.
Chad Schenck, transportation director for Greater Clark County Schools, said he is thrilled that the county will have extra officers available to enforce penalties for bus stop violations. He said drivers are asked to report bus stop arm infractions — including vehicle descriptions and license plate numbers — to law enforcement, and the district often sees at least one or two reports a day.
"It's great to use added resources to investigate and prosecute those who are jeopardizing the safety of our students our bus drivers are picking up and dropping off along Clark County roadways," he said.
Schenck said although buses have flashing red lights and stop arms, there is always the risk of other drivers disregarding traffic laws and distracted driving. He encourages drivers to be patient, saying there is no reason to drive erratically or pass a stopped bus with the stop arm extended.
He also discussed the district's need to equip school buses with cameras to catch vehicles that illegally pass buses. Greater Clark does not have cameras on its buses, but he said they will be on any new buses ordered by the district.
Karie Kahafer, transportation coordinator for West Clark County Schools, said she is happy to hear about an increased presence of law enforcement to address bus stop safety.
"Just remember that there's a child's life inside that bus," she said. "Use the most extreme caution that you can possibly imagine to make sure our children are safe."