AMBOY, Ill. — For one Illinois school superintendent, the news of the Oct. 30 school bus tragedy in Fulton County, Indiana, struck close to home — and school.
Joshua Nichols is the superintendent of Amboy Community Unit School District 272 in Lee County, Illinois. Nichols is a father and his children are close in age to the three children who died as they crossed a highway near Rochester, Indiana, to board their school bus.
“As an educator, as a dad, I cannot imagine coming upon that scene,” Nichols said.
On Oct. 30, 6-year-old twins Xzavier and Mason Ingle and their 9-year-old sister, Alivia Stahl, were struck and killed. A fourth child, Maverick Lowe, 11, who also was struck, was critically injured and remains hospitalized.
The driver, Alyssa Shepherd, 24, was charged with multiple counts of reckless homicide and a misdemeanor count of passing a school bus with stop arm activated resulting in bodily injury. She has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
Just days earlier, Nichols took to Facebook to alert parents and drivers to a serious situation with one of the Amboy bus routes.
“I was a high school principal and I do not like social media. But I am learning. I wanted to get the word out and we have a decent Facebook following so I put it out there,” Nichols said.
The post, made on Oct. 25, went as follows: “This past year we’ve had an issue with drivers passing stopped school buses picking up students, with their stop arm out and the lights flashing, on Highway 52. As a result, we installed on one of the buses a camera system that records either side of the stop arm. This allows for us to give to law enforcement pictures of the front of the car including the license plate, the driver and passengers, and a photo of the rear of the car including the license plate. Unfortunately, since installing the camera, we’ve had to give three sets of these pictures to the Lee County Sheriffs. We appreciate the support we’ve received from the Lee County Sheriffs in tracking down these drivers.”
In Illinois, passing a stopped school bus that has the stop arm engaged and red lights flashing could result in a three-month driver’s license suspension on the first conviction and a year for the second conviction. Fines range from $150 for the first conviction to $500 for the second and subsequent convictions.
The district covers 205 square miles and has nine established bus routes, with additional routes for special education, vocational education and preschool.
The issue of cars passing buses that have the stop arm engaged and the lights flashing isn’t a new one for the district.
“We have had parent complaints and in the past, as well. It’s not just this month, it’s not just this year. But just this year, we started getting reports daily. We have had people running stop arms daily on that particular route,” Nichols said.
U.S. Route 52 runs through Amboy and 13 miles north to Dixon. That bus route is the one that has experienced the majority of the violations.
As the complaints and concerns ramped up, Nichols checked out bus cameras that could capture the license plates and descriptions of cars and drivers. The district settled on a single, $2,500 multiple camera system for the Route 52 bus.
Nichols credits the Amboy Police Department and the Lee County Sheriff’s Department for their help in finding the drivers who violate the school bus law.
“They are very supportive and the do a good job for us,” Nichols said.
Nichols said despite the cost of the camera system, if drivers knowing that they are being filmed as they pass a stopped school bus, stops the instances, then the camera system will have done its job and then some.
“I hope people just start paying attention. If that camera system did not capture another single person for the rest of the year because everybody stopped for the stop arm and flashing red lights, I would be perfectly happy,” Nichols said.