County school districts launch bus safety campaign

Southwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Phil Downs announces the launch of Slow. Stop. Stay., a collaborative campaign among Allen County’s four school districts. Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel is pictured to Downs’ right. (Louis Wyatt)

By Louis Wyatt

FORT WAYNE — Few in the general public know just how often Allen County’s four school districts work together to reduce costs and share expenses for the interest of taxpayers. However, when it comes to the safety of their students, the four districts aren’t shy about their efforts.

On Aug. 7, representatives from East Allen County Schools, Fort Wayne Community Schools, Northwest Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools, with the support of Parkview Health Trauma Services, gathered at FWCS’ Central Transportation Center to officially launch a public service campaign reminding drivers to stop for school buses. With school back in full swing this week, districts are asking drivers to “Slow. Stop. Stay.”

“Next week, Allen County schoolchildren will be returning to their bus stops excited to be heading back to school, and it is incredibly important that you remember when you see yellow lights flashing on a bus that you slow, and when the red light starts and the stop arm comes out you stop and allow children to get on the bus,” Southwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Phil Downs said during last week’s campaign launch, adding that drivers are required to remain stopped until a bus’s stop arm is fully retracted and the stop lights are off.

Nearly 200 school bus stop arm violations occur each day in Allen County, according to local law enforcement. Violations have been a critical issue within the county for years, and school districts statewide began seeking more ways to educate the public last year when three children were killed near Rochester while attempting to cross a road to board their school bus.

“There is nothing so important that drivers can’t take a moment to stop for children trying to get to school,” FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson said in a news release. “Every time a driver fails to stop for a stopped school bus, they are putting children’s lives at risk.”

In order to prevent violations in Allen County, the Fort Wayne Police Department and Allen County Sheriff’s Department conducted a targeted enforcement campaign in March, issuing more than 60 citations for stop arm violations over the span of three weeks. The agencies will continue to use data from local schools to identify high violation areas.

During last week’s campaign launch, Lt. Tony Maze of the Fort Wayne Police Department said stop arm violations are not confined to a specific area.

“It goes beyond Fort Wayne and Allen County,” he said. “It’s a public safety issue that affects everyone.”

Maze said local law enforcement agencies, as part of the Allen County Traffic Safety Partnership, will continue accelerated enforcement this week through Sept. 15 with the help of a stop arm violation enforcement grant from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. The grant will also help ensure crossing guard compliance, he said, adding that bus drivers will continue to report common problem areas.

It’s possible that many drivers simply don’t know the law, Sgt. Brian Walker of the Indiana State Police said. On a two-lane road or divided highway with a paved center median, drivers are still required to stop in both directions. On a multi-lane roadway with a paved barrier, drivers are required to stop behind the bus, and any opposing traffic is required to slow down and drive with regard to children, Walker said.

For Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel, preventing more tragedies like the one in Fulton County last year comes down to educating the public on stop arm protocol.

“I am hopeful that there is no one out there who is intentionally trying to harm a child,” he said. “I do think that we get caught up in the busyness of life and we get self-centered because we’re late for work or we’re trying to get somewhere. But the reality of it is children are still learning everything, and they assume that when a school bus is stopped and everybody is following the rules, it is safe for them to go, and we need to make sure the busyness of life doesn’t take away the innocent safety that child feels. It’s on us as adults to be paying attention.”

Himsel said he also believes there is merit in replicating the Slow. Stop. Stay. campaign in other communities.

The stop arm campaign kicked off with a public service announcement which ran on local television stations last week. The campaign will also include printed material, yard signs, billboards and social media campaigns throughout the year.

“The surrounding Allen County school districts are partnering together to help keep students, drivers and the community aware of the need to increase safety for our children,” EACS Superintendent Marilyn Hissong said. “East Allen County Schools is excited to be a part of the Slow. Stop. Stay. campaign.”