CASPER, Wyo. — A Wind River Elementary School girl killed after exiting her school bus in December 2011 has inspired a push for tougher bus safety laws, which lawmakers initiated Monday.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee, meeting in Casper, called for a draft bill to increase penalties for drivers who pass school buses when warning lights are activated to signal that students are entering or leaving a bus. In order to catch and cite offenders, the legislators also are considering installing external cameras on all daily route buses.
The committee plans to consider and discuss the proposed legislation at its next meeting in July.
A presentation from the Pavillion-area community, where Makayla Strahle was killed, referenced Iowa’s Kadyn’s Law in suggesting tougher penalties for Wyoming.
Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, said after the meeting that he didn’t anticipate adopting the Iowa law verbatim. However, he said the committee is interested in raising the penalty and making it a stepped offense so penalties are increased for multiple offenses. Current state statute lists a maximum penalty of $750 and six months in jail for the offense.
The committee members also expressed interest in a public campaign to raise awareness of the safety issue and increased penalties should the 2014 Legislature pass the bill.
“It’s a type of traffic offense that needs more attention," Fremont County School District 6 School Resource Officer Brett Johnson said. “When people start getting higher fines or getting their licenses suspended for several occurrences … people will start to pay attention.”
The external camera systems for Wyoming's 1,500 school buses would cost $1.65 million to $3 million, according to information from the Wyoming Department of Education. The department also reported an estimated 52,000 illegal school bus passing violations, known as fly-bys, in 2011-12.
The driver who struck Strahle as she crossed a highway was reported to have passed the bus while its warning lights were flashing, according to a previous Star-Tribune story. William "Dean" Barnes was convicted of three misdemeanor charges and sentenced to 300 days in prison for the misdemeanor charge of homicide by vehicle, according to an earlier report in the Riverton Ranger. The maximum sentence for such offense is one year.
Lander 9th Judicial District Judge Norman E. Young sentenced Barnes to 20 days each for two misdemeanors: maximum speed/too fast for conditions and passing a stopped school bus with flashing red lights. The three sentences will run concurrently.
Young also ordered Barnes to pay roughly $13,000 in restitution.
A 12-member jury found the Lander man guilty of the three charges after a weeklong trial in November. Barnes was acquitted of a felony charge for aggravated vehicular homicide and misdemeanor exercise of due care by drivers.
Fremont County School District 6 Superintendent Diana Clapp and some students from Strahle's school faced the committee to support preventing such tragedies from happening in Wyoming. The information Clapp presented featured student recommendations and research work.
Sen. Jim D. Anderson, R-Glenrock, complimented the young participants, telling them democracy takes time and patience.
“But I hope that, in time, when you look back and see the final outcome of all this, that you will take great pride in the fact that you were a part of it,” Anderson said. “And in regard to the individual that you lost in your community, you could not have done anything better in their memory than to serve those that will come after them.”