STEVENSVILLE - Riding the bus to school is rarely a life-threatening experience, but it was for a group of Stevensville students on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.
For the loved ones of those kids on the bus, the morning was stressful, scary and frustrating.
With previous concerns voiced about the driver, Stevensville families look for who needs to be held accountable.
The bus driver crashed through a fence on the intersection of Three Mile Road and Ridge Road in Stevensville. She then pulled off, continuing her route.
Lane Andrews, a sophomore at Stevensville High School boarded the bus shortly after the crash.
He says he could tell something shocking had happened based on his friend’s expressions.
Then, before he knew it, a police officer was pulling the bus over, and telling the driver to get off the bus.
Andrews says the officer cursed at the driver, close enough for students to hear.
The Montana Highway Patrol responded to the scene and a field sobriety test was performed on the driver, visible to the bus riders.
The driver was then placed under arrest for child endangerment, driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, and fleeing the scene of the crash.
The driver was employed and hired by Harlow Bus Service, but Stevensville superintendent Dave Thennis says the school still has some say in who drives their students.
“We have some input as to, you know, who is driving and who's not driving and that sort of thing,” he says. “And, you know, we get feedback about how we do and how things are going and then make decisions based on that.”
Andrews’ grandma, Leesa Jones, says she has complained about this particular driver several times before, both to Harlow Bus Service and the school district.
Thinnes says he is unaware of these complaints.
“I've only been here for 10 months, so I haven't had you know, those sorts of historical conversations,” he says. “It never reached this office, or I haven't seen anything come to my office.”
Last year, Jones called the school after the driver damaged her fence while backing out of the driveway.
The school spoke with Harlow, and the driver apologized to Jones in person.
“Knowing that I had those concerns last year, I think that's what upsets me the most right now is I did report her and just nothing was done,” Jones says. “I had a feeling something was wrong. And nobody heard me.”
Andrews and Jones both recall other instances of poor driving, including scraping both sides of the bus while trying to pull into a storage unit.
Andrews says, in total, he remembers at least eight concerning accidents.
Yet, despite these stories from Jones and Andrews, Harlow vice president, Jacob Iverson, and Thennis both claim there is no history of conflict with the driver.
Jones, who drove a school bus for 15 years, says she worries about the effect the accident had on the young kids.
“There were little tiny kids on that bus as well as your high schoolers,” she says. “That's precious cargo, and every single one of those kids had to go through watching an arrest, through the drive, through all of this.”
Jones was also upset not to have received a call from the school on the day of the crash. She felt the written statement from the district was insufficient to ease parent worry.
“They sent an all text message saying there was an incident on Bus One, no injuries. But no one contacted — physically contacted anybody,” Jones says. “Just to reach out, just to assure us that they're okay and that we're doing this, we're dealing with this. But no, I had to reach out to them.”
According to Superintendent Thennis, the written statement sent to all parents read:
This morning on the way to school Bus 1 went into the ditch and hit a fence. The driver over corrected and hit the fence on the opposite side of the road. Fortunately, everyone is safe, but the incident reminds us of our commitment and responsibility to keep students safe. Montana Highway Patrol quickly arrived on the scene and is actively investigating the incident. The driver, who is not an employee of the Stevensville Public Schools, is employed by a third-party transportation provider. We are deeply concerned about this situation and will not allow this driver to transport students.
Dave Thennis – Superintendent
Stevensville Public Schools
Thennis called Jones back Wednesday morning after her grandson had left for school. He took the same bus, driven by a supervisor from Harlow Bus Service.
“But it was still very strange putting him back on,” Jones says. “But you don't have a choice. And you have to think is this going to be an easy ride in today?”
While the driver was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, Iverson says she did blow a 0.0 into a breathalyzer.
Montana Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Jay Nelson, says he could neither confirm nor deny this piece of information.
Jones, who says she does not blame the school district, hopes there is further awareness after this incident, and that concerns from parents are taken more seriously in the future.
“I mean, if somebody's got a concern, I think that we need to listen. We need to listen to our kids. Or, we just wait it out and see, and that's what it felt like for me, is that we just played it off, and now we are at this place,” she says.