Advocate mom preaches school bus safety to save lives

On Dec. 11, 2009, Lori McJohnson’s 5-year-old son, Nathan, stepped off a school bus in Laurel. It was the last thing he would do.

As he walked past the front of the bus and crossed the street, a vehicle hit and killed him. The driver didn’t stop when the school bus sign was pulled out with flashing lights. After hitting Nathan, he kept on driving.

It could have been prevented, McJohnson told bus drivers in the Pascagoula-Gautier School District on Tuesday before their annual safety meeting.

And as tragic as McJohnson’s story is, it is one she wants everyone to know.

And with the start of the school year bringing the bustle of school traffic across South Mississippi roads, McJohnson’s message couldn’t be any timelier.

“The parents give us the most important part of themselves — their children,” district transportation director Lance Bolen said. “They are in our care. We need to do everything possible to make sure they return home safely to them.”

Not long after Nathan was killed, McJohnson said she was surprised to hear from state Sen. Chris McDaniel. He had attempted to get a tougher law passed regarding school bus safety, but it died in legislative committee. So the two teamed up and fought to get “Nathan’s Law” passed. It worked.

Drivers must stay 10 feet away from school buses and cannot pass a bus with flashing lights and a stop sign. First-time fines have gone from $200 to $350. If a driver does it again, the fine jumps to $750. Penalties can include a revoked driver's license and jail time.

The law has been so effective, other states have modeled similar legislation after it. It’s importance is vital, said McJohnson, who showed video from inside the bus immediately after Nathan was hit.

The bus driver can be heard repeating, “Please no. Please no. Please God no.” The students appeared shocked and remained silent for about a minute.

“These kids now have to live with what they saw,” McJohnson said. “The bus driver has to live with it. You don’t want to live with that,” McJohnson told the staff.

McJohnson said she doesn’t expect violations to completely stop. She said about 3,000 to 5,000 vehicles in Mississippi pass a stopped school bus in a day.

“We’re not suggesting that this will stop people from passing stopped school buses,” she said. “It’s more of a thing where the severity of the fine spreads among the public, so that it becomes something they don’t want to risk.”

She advised school bus drivers on steps they can take.

“One thing you can do is to tell your kids not to cross the road until you give them a hand signal that the road is clear,” she said. “If a student violates that, you need to let somebody know.”

In Nathan’s case, a city utility employee who witnessed the hit-and-run followed the vehicle, caught up with it and held the driver until the police arrived. He’s now in prison.

“If we can’t get them to school and home safely,” McJohnson said, “we’re not going to need math or science or reading. The student is not going to be here.”

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory