CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – The signs of deep trauma peppered the Chattanooga courtroom at a hearing Tuesday where a judge sentenced a school bus driver to four years in prison for his involvement in a crash which killed six elementary school children.
A service dog – a black German shepherd – lay at the feet of a former administrator of Woodmore Elementary School. Jasmine Mateen wore a pink hoodie that bore the name of her daughter who died in the crash.
On Nov. 21, 2016, Johnthony Walker was speeding down a road, on his cell phone, while at the wheel of a school bus. He lost control. The bus listed on its side. Pictures from the crash site show the top of the bus crumpled around a tree. Before losing control, he had allegedly yelled at the children, “Are y’all ready to die?”
On March 1, a jury found Walker, 25, guilty of six counts of criminally negligent homicide and 16 counts of reckless aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, reckless driving and using a portable electronic device while driving.
Before Judge Don Poole pronounced the sentence, before he explained the factors that weighed into why Walker was not eligible for judicial diversion, nor why he was eligible for enhanced sentencing, the judge called a 10-minute recess.
Up to that moment, the hearing had been underscored with sniffling and sobbing. Police escorted a cursing woman from the room when Walker’s attorney, Amanda Dunn, suggested her client was a candidate for judicial diversion.
The Woodmore bus crash renewed the debate over whether or not to install seatbelts on school buses, said Thomas McMahon, executive editor of SchoolBusFleet.com, a trade publication for the pupil transportation industry.
Between 2006 and 2015, the number of fatalities for passengers riding in school buses averaged six people per year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Most states don’t require seatbelts. But in the months following the crash, Nevada passed a bill that requires seatbelts in new school buses. Texas passed similar legislation also, McMahon said.
In Tennessee, the state legislature raised the minimum age to be a bus driver to 25 and added more oversight to the state’s school bus systems in response to the Woodmore crash, McMahon said. In March, Governor Bill Haslam proposed $3 million in grants so school districts could switch to school buses with seat belts.
But for the parents who put their children on Bus 366 that day in November, the effects of the Woodmore bus crash were still raw.
“I just want you to know, Johnthony, you took somebody from me that was everything to me,” Diamond Brown, one of the mothers, said from the witness stand.
D’Myunn Brown was her only son and she only had four months with him before he was killed in the crash. Brown said she tried to parent while she spent time in federal prison.
Brown told the court how her son loved to dance, how he danced in the bus aisles. D’Myunn had a good sense of humor, too. She started taking college classes because she wanted to be a good role model for him.
“I can look you in your eyes and I can tell you that I forgive you, because I know my son is no longer suffering on Earth,” Brown said.
Brown said she knew his mother and his grandmother. She believed in God and she believed in forgiveness. She knew what doing time would be like. She was young; she sped while driving too.
But “every action has a reaction,” she said. The tragedy could have been prevented.
Walker spoke from the podium. Breaking down, he said “I just want to apologize for taking the lights out of your lives. I never intended for any of this to happen and I just want to say I’m sorry.”
Dunn argued that Walker was the kind of person who worked two jobs to provide for his girlfriend and their son, riding his skateboard to and from work. Before the crash, Walker did not have a criminal record.
According to the presentence report prepared by the Tennessee Department of Correction, Walker has a 4-year-old son.
“He states he is as involved as he can be, as he does not want his son to grow up as a stereotype of the black community,” the report said. “He reports that he does not want his son to have an absent father and wants to be there for him at all times.”
Returning from the recess, Poole began his comments by saying “It’s ungaugeable the pain, the suffering, the despair and I understand that. We still look at the law.”
In sentencing, Poole said Walker was an excellent candidate for rehabilitation. But evidence of past speeding also weighed against him as proof of repeat, criminal action.
While Dunn argued that her client was eligible for deferment, Poole was not convinced. Walker violated the public trust, the trust that parents and the school put in him to drive their children and students safely, he said.
“Seldom has a case come before this court that’s so shocking, so violent, so reprehensible,” Poole said.
The sentences will run concurrently, from 30 days in the workhouse for use of an electronic device to four years for reckless aggravated assault. Poole said Walker has 30 days to appeal.
Another mother to testify, Mateen, said the blame does not rest solely on Walker.
“I blame the board of education and Durham as well,” she said.
Durham School Services was the school bus company that employed Walker. Walker and Durham School Services are named in several pending civil lawsuits.
Mateen complained to the Chattanooga Board of Education, the school bus company and the principal of the school about Walker’s driving before the crash. None of her calls, visits or letters were addressed, she said.
Mateen said Walker was not fired because there was such a shortage of drivers.
Indeed, the Woodmore bus crash came at a time when the school bus industry as a whole faces challenges in staffing school buses around the nation.
McMahon, editor of the industry publication, said the shortage has a lot to do with pay and how much responsibility a driver has. Besides operating a large vehicle, they must also manage a few dozen students.
In a sense, they’re “in charge of a rolling classroom,” he said.