NEW CUMBERLAND - At the start of every school year, Hancock County Schools Superintendent Suzan Smith issues her customary warning to motorists about school bus safety.
This year, she's putting some muscle behind those words.
The school district and the Hancock County Sheriff's Department are cooperating in a program that will put sheriff's deputies on buses to identify motorists who illegally pass a school bus while students are boarding or departing.
KEEPING THEM SAFE — Betty Hissam, of Chester, greets her daughter, Charlotte Feicht, 6, a student at Allison Elementary School, as she gets off the school bus on Wednesday. The Hancock County school district and sheriff’s department are stepping up efforts to enforce school bus safety laws now that the new school year has started. -- Stephen Huba
"Nobody'll know what bus or when, but it is an effort to keep our buses safe," Smith said. "The most valuable resource in the world rides those buses, and that's our children."
Smith said a "chase car" also will be assigned to the bus with an officer on board.
"If somebody is violating the laws involving the school bus, then the officer obviously knows and can see the car and will contact the chase car, and they will stop them," she said.
Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher, whose office obtained a state grant to fund the initiative, said deputies are better equipped and better trained to identify and pursue violators. This is the first time such a program has been tried in the Northern Panhandle, he said.
"We're going to pick out the bus routes that have the most violations and concentrate on the more dangerous areas," Fletcher said. "Certain intersections in our county are really dangerous for our children."
Fletcher said he expects the program to start sometime in September and continue into October, once he is able to work out a schedule. National School Bus Safety Week is Oct. 21-25.
The Hancock County grant, in the amount of $1,500, comes from the West Virginia Governor's Highway Safety Program, said Natalie Harvey, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The Hancock County school board approved implementation of the program earlier this week.
Hancock County has more than 40 school buses that ride multiple routes each day. The buses are equipped with flashing red lights, a stop sign that opens out into traffic, and, in some cases, a crossing arm.
Smith said instances of motorists illegally passing a stopped school bus are on the increase in Hancock County.
"It happens frequently. We're very, very fortunate that we have not had any students hit or killed," she said.
Smith defined frequently as several times a week.
"I've seen it happen," said Betty Hissam, of Chester, while waiting for her daughter at a school bus stop in Chester on Wednesday. "I've seen people pass school buses on (U.S. Route) 30, just not paying attention."
A 2012 survey of school bus drivers conducted by the Governor's Highway Safety Program reported 400 annual cases of vehicles illegally passing a stopped school bus in 50 out of the state's 55 counties.
An accident that resulted in the death of a 6-year-old Lincoln County girl in 2007 prompted the West Virginia Legislature to toughen the penalties for illegally passing a school bus. "Haven's Law," named for the victim, Haven McCarthy, was passed in 2010 and makes it a felony to illegally pass a school bus and cause an injury or death.
In the case of Haven McCarthy, who was hit by a car just moments after getting off the bus, the driver pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, and was fined $50 and placed on one year's home confinement.
"Haven's Law" also increased the penalties for incidents not involving injuries. A first offense can result in a fine of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to six months. Conviction can also result in a license suspension - 30 days for a first offense, 90 days for a second offense and 180 days for subsequent offenses.
In 2011, a 12-year-old Nicholas County boy was hospitalized after being struck at a bus stop, and a 17-year-old Jefferson County girl was treated and released after being hit.
In 2012, an accident in Summersville, W.Va., resulted in a broken leg and foot for an 8-year-old girl who was crossing the street after getting off a school bus.
Although Hancock County has avoided such incidents, a May 2012 accident involving a Hancock County school bus and a motorcycle on state Route 8 resulted in the death of the motorcyclist. No students were on the bus at the time, and the motorcyclist was determined to be at fault.
Fletcher said the Hancock County program is meant to educate motorists about the law.
"We want to raise awareness more than make arrests," he said.
"We have to do something for the safety and security of our students," Smith said. "There are people who just do not heed the stop signs and flashing lights. If they continue, they are going to take a chance of getting stopped and having to pay the penalty."
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)