La PORTE COUNTY — In October 2018, a 24-year-old woman, with three children in her vehicle, ignored a school bus stop arm and fatally struck 6-year-old twins, Xzavier and Mason Ingle, and their 9-year-old sister Alivia Stahl.
Alyssa Shepherd, who goes on trial in October on three felony charges of reckless homicide and a misdemeanor count of passing a school bus while its arm is extended, told police she saw the lights, but did not recognize it was a school bus.
The incident in Rochester caused outrage in Fulton County and beyond, and state legislators were quick to pass a new law increasing penalties for drivers who ignore school bus stop arms.
“The consensus is clear and we wish to inform the public that passing a stopped school bus can and will be charged as a Class A misdemeanor, subject to summons, or in certain cases, arrest,” said Mary Lake, chief of staff for the La Porte County Prosecutor’s office.
“As of July 1, 2019, Indiana Code 9-21-8-52 (b) provides that: ‘A person who operates a vehicle and who recklessly passes a school bus stopped on a roadway or a private road when the arm signal device ... is in the device’s extended position commits a Class A misdemeanor’,” the deputy prosecutor said. “However, the offense is a Level 6 felony if it causes bodily injury to a person, and a Level 5 felony if it causes the death of a person.”
The prosecutor’s office, hoping to get the word out, “consulted with the major La Porte County law enforcement agencies, including La Porte City Police and Chief Tom Owens; the La Porte County Sheriff’s office and Sheriff John Boyd; and Michigan City Police and Assistant Chief Kevin Urbanczyk, regarding school bus safety as school begins around the county,” Lake said.
Police will be doing so with extra high-visibility patrols, according to La Porte Police Capt. Patrick T. Hemphill Jr.
“The La Porte City Police Department, along with other departments statewide, will be conducting School Bus Safety patrols from now through Sept. 13,” he said. “Officers will be working approximately 80 hours of extra patrols under a Stop Arm Violation Enforcement (SAVE) grant ... to target drivers who pass school buses while the stop arm is activated.”
Drivers must “remember that school is back in session and paying attention to buses and the young children riding them should be in the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Hemphill said. “We are asking the public to be vigilant of their driving habits to ensure not only the safety of themselves, but also the children embarking and disembarking a school bus.”
SAVE is a traffic safety grant program funded by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and administered by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.
“The goal is to protect the lives of children getting on and off a bus, and enforce violations involving school bus stop arms,” Hemphill said.
In announcing the grants – a total of $380,000 to 39 departments statewide, including $3,000 to La Porte Police and $12,000 to the Porter County Traffic Safety Partnership, which includes Chesterton Police – Gov. Eric Holcomb said it’s time to get serious about speeding, aggressive driving and school bus stop-arm violations.
“Indiana police officers will be enforcing increased fines and penalties for drivers who recklessly pass bus stops and drive aggressively,” Holcomb said. “This is one of many steps that Indiana is taking to protect the safety of school children as classes resume.”
Earlier this year, Holcomb signed the school bus safety law, which took effect July 1. It requires a school bus to use flashing lights and extend its stop arm while loading and unloading students along a roadway.
It also requires drivers to stop while that arm is extended. On highways divided by a physical barrier or unimproved median, traffic traveling in the opposite direction may proceed with due caution, but on a non-divided highway, all traffic must stop.
“When approaching a school bus which is stopped and has its red lights flashing and stop arm extended, from any direction, motorists are required to stop, even on multiple lane highways where there is no barrier or median separating lanes of traffic,” Indiana State Police Sgt. Ted Bohner said.
“The end of summer means school is back in session. School buses are back on the roads and troopers will be hitting the roads to watch for stop arm violations,” he said. “High-visibility enforcement will be used to encourage motorists to stop for school buses, and take enforcement action for those that don’t.
“Always be prepared to stop for a school bus and watch for children. Not only is disregarding a school bus stop arm dangerous, it is a serious offense,” Bohner said.
“The safety of our children should be the highest priority of our community,” Lake said. “Please do not put them at risk.”