The Liberty County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced last week that it is seeking an outside investigation into how officials handled a May bus incident that resulted in the arrests of seven students.
On May 13, a bus driver carrying 34 Snelson-Golden Middle School students pulled the bus over twice, reportedly due to student misconduct, and law-enforcement officials were called. As a result, seven students were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
Several parents and church pastors approached the local NAACP chapter about taking a closer look at the incident, President Dwight Newbould said. The group launched its own investigation and encouraged those who were involved in the situation to explain what happened during the bus ride, he said.
“From what’s going on now, the only persons being called to answer for their actions are the student bus riders,” Newbould said. “We feel that it should be known and investigated — issues concerning conduct and department operations of the staff of the board of education and the sheriff’s office.”
According to Newbould, members of the chapter’s Legal Redress Committee met with Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes, Chief Deputy Keith Moran, Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer, six of the children who were arrested and their parents to discern what happened on the bus.
Now that the NAACP investigation is complete, the group is requesting that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation or another outside agency look into how deputies from the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and a school bus driver conducted themselves as the situation unfolded.
The student stories were “pretty much consistent,” which inspired the group’s request to seek further investigation, Newbould said.
“I’m going to admit that this is not a perfect report,” Newbould said. “Our search for fairness and justice is not an easy search, we know we’re going to get criticized, but that’s all that we can ask — fairness and justice.”
Newbould cited holes in the investigation where people — including the bus driver, responding deputies and some administrators from the board of education — declined to speak with the committee.
“But it gives us a lot of leads to ask for more,” he said.
The investigation report alleges that the school bus driver acted unprofessionally by using profanity and tampered with the vehicle’s surveillance system by turning off the camera.
“The students reported that the bus driver turned off the bus, made comments about the camera operation, but intentionally stated he was going to turn off the bus to stop the recording of the bus cameras,” the report said.
On the school board’s part, there will be no further investigation, Scherer said.
“We will cooperate if outsiders come in, but at this point, we’re satisfied that we properly investigated and dealt with the situation,” she said. The students were suspended from the bus for the remainder of the year, she said. In May, Scherer reported that six of the seven students involved had previous reprimands on their school records.
“I am not aware of the bus driver swearing,” Scherer said. “As far as tampering with the cameras, I’m assuming that (turning off the bus) does in fact shut the tape off, but if you were pulled over to the side of the road and were going to be sitting there waiting on police officers to come, it would make sense to me that you would have shut the bus off.”
During the incident, the driver, Douglass Burgess, was leaving Snelson-Golden with two routes’ worth of students on the bus, which has a capacity of at least 72, Scherer said. Contrary to parent complaints that the bus was overcrowded, the official school board count showed that there were only 34 students on board.
The superintendent said that because students were standing while the bus was moving, bouncing in their seats, making too much noise and creating a chaotic environment, Burgess pulled the bus over once while just down the street from the school and warned the students to sit down and be quiet.
Burgess said by the time he reached Highway 84, the children still were unruly, so he stopped the bus again in the parking lot of Kobe Japanese Steakhouse, according to Scherer.
At the second stop, one female student reportedly jumped out of the emergency exit at the back of the bus and ran off. Following protocol, the driver notified school administrators that the girl had left the bus, and someone placed a call to law enforcement, Scherer said.
Tony Norce, director of transportation for the school board, said that cameras continue to record even after the vehicles are turned off. Drivers do not have any control over whether the cameras are running, because they are stored within locked boxes.
When school administrators attempted to review footage from the incident, what they found on the cameras was months-old material, Scherer said.
Norce verified Scherer’s account, adding that by that time, he already had placed a purchase request for new cameras with the board of education.
“We knew that the VHS cameras were prone to problems,” he said. Currently, the buses are in the process of being outfitted with new surveillance systems, including four cameras per bus and a GPS system that synchronizes the footage with data about the locations and speeds of the vehicles.
Footage will be digitally stored in two-week segments, which gives administrators a greater window of time to review footage if necessary.
Norce, who responded to the scene on behalf of the school board, declined further comment.
The NAACP report also alleges misconduct on behalf of the responding sheriff’s deputies.
“The students reported that the officer was using profanity toward the student bus riders. He was in their personal space, became unprofessional and in turn added to the chaotic state,” the report said. It also alleges that the deputies failed to seek medical treatment for one student who sustained skinned knees when she was removed from the bus.
After her release from jail hours later, the girl’s parents sought medical attention, and the girl was found to have sustained injuries, Newbould said. He said he was not privy to the medical evaluation, but anticipates it will come up in court.
According to the police report, Deputy Terry Perry and Officer Gary Eason responded to the scene and gave “several commands for the juveniles to sit down and be quiet; however, they refused to do so.”
One of the girls refused to get off the bus, so the officer took her by the arm and tried to escort her off the bus as she grabbed onto seats, the Courier previously reported. Both officers eventually had to take hold of the student, as she started kicking, according to the report. A third deputy was called when the student continued struggling on the way to the cruiser, the report said.
On Monday, Sikes issued a statement to the Courier in response to the NAACP request, explaining that the incident has been fully investigated and has been referred to the district attorney’s office for litigation.
“As sheriff of Liberty County, I want to ensure the citizens and parents that I am very concerned about the safety of our students while riding the bus to and from school,” the statement said.
“I am committed to addressing each issue and have the best interest of the children at heart, but we cannot discuss specifics of the investigation with the public until the case has been adjudicated.”