Seven Snelson-Golden Middle School students — ages 11-14 — were arrested Friday for disorderly conduct on a bus ride home.
Around 3:45 p.m., the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office received a call that bus driver Douglas Burgess had pulled over into the Kobe Japanese Steakhouse parking lot, not far from the school, according to a sheriff’s incident report. Once Burgess pulled over, one girl bolted out the emergency door and took off running, the report states.
“Anytime the kids are disruptive enough that it becomes an unsafe thing, their instructions are to pull over,” Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer said of the driver’s action. “This kind (of thing) is rare. We probably have four or five incidents a year where a bus driver will pull a bus over. This is the worst we’ve had this year. I don’t know when we’ve had kids seven at a time arrested on the bus.”
The superintendent also pulled the students’ disciplinary records, which revealed six of the seven previously had been reprimanded. They were allowed back in school this week.
“All but one have discipline records, including several with bus incidents,” Scherer said.
Several students were standing up in the back of the bus and not listening to the driver’s requests to keep their feet out of the walkway, according to the LCSO report.
“The driver had to call 911 and had deputies dispatched. Several of the kids were being disorderly,” Chief Deputy Keith Moran said. “We’re real close with the board of education … but as it stands right now, the case will be investigated. Usually juvenile cases are pretty quick; it goes (to juvenile court) within 10 days.”
The report stated that two law-enforcement officials — Deputy Terry Perry and Officer Gary Eason — arrived and found “the juveniles were yelling and standing up.” The officers then gave “several commands for the juveniles to sit down and be quiet; however, they refused to do so,” the report states.
One of the girls refused to get off the bus, so the officer took her by the arm, trying to escort her off the bus as she grabbed onto seats. 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.
As soon as the calls were placed to the police department, several board of education employees arrived, including Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Conley, Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Mary Alexander, Director of Transportation Tony Norce and Liberty College & Career Academy CEO Tom Alexander, Scherer said.
“It was pretty loud and disruptive even when they got there,” Scherer said her colleagues told her. “All the accusations of police brutality and all that, I can’t respond to that (because I was not there).”
Television news stories have reported that the arrested students’ parents claimed their children were treated badly and that police brutality was involved. However, both Scherer and Moran believe the proper protocols and procedures were followed.
“I wasn’t there. So I’m not going to second-guess our police officers in terms of how they handled the situation when they got there,” Scherer said.
The bus videotape is being pulled for review, but because the VHS system is so old, it may not work. Currently, Norce is trying to salvage any video footage, Scherer said.
“This particular camera, Tony is still working with. The tape is showing stuff in December and stuff in March; we don’t have anything from this incident (yet),” the superintendent said. “If we don’t have reason to keep it, we tape over it. Obviously if there’s an incident, we keep it.”
The board of education recently approved a motion to install new digital cameras on buses since fewer than 20 have upgraded cameras, Norce said. The upgrades will be installed this summer and will allow for incidents to be recorded by four cameras from different angles to monitor both student and bus driver behavior.
“Upwards of 120 new systems (will be installed) and they will have four cameras, and it will alleviate our old VHS camera problems,” Norce said. “We’re hoping that they all will have them in place if funding allows.”
Although the calls are few and far between, Moran said the department gets a couple of calls a year from bus drivers requesting help with unruly children.
“As a parent myself and a grandparent, you want to think your kids are safe on the bus,” Moran said. “(But) if officers tell you to do something and you physically resist them, there is a chance you’re going to get arrested.”
The students have been suspended from riding the bus for the remainder of the school year, Scherer said. Two routes were expected to be run that afternoon — with 34 students total on the bus — and the vehicle was not overcrowded, contrary to statements made by parents, Scherer said.
According to the report, the students who were arrested were transported to the Liberty County Jail and a juvenile case worker was notified. She instructed law-enforcement officials to release the juveniles back to their parents.