Johnthony Walker, the driver of a Tennessee school bus involved in a fatal November 21, 2016, accident, has been denied his request for probation. The request and denial were made during a hearing regarding the case, but were left somewhat open-ended for a potential approval down the road. Walker has been incarcerated in isolation—for his protection—for all of 2017. This bus accident and other recent accidents highlight the importance of school bus safety for the many students who rely on buses to get them safely to and from school.
Six students died in the bus crash:
- Kenote Wilson
- Cor’Dayja Jones
- Zyaira Mateen
- D’Myunn Brown
- Zoie Nash
- Zayanna Harris
Hamilton County School Bus Driver Requests Probation and Diversion
Walker, through his attorney, was pursuing diversion, which would have enabled him to have the 34-count case against him dropped and the charges removed from his record, contingent upon the completion of a court-ordered program, which may have included community service or probation, among other options.
The Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge hearing the request, however, determined that Walker did not qualify for diversion because he had not pled guilty or been found guilty of the charges against him.
“Based upon the charges, he appears to be eligible,” Judge Don Poole said. “But under the laws that exist, he is not a qualified candidate.”
Walker’s defense attorney, Amanda Dunn argued that Walker should be released from jail with a reduced bond while details of the case are being determined, and said that Walker poses none of the usual flight risks of those who are usually given bonds. The Tennessee school bus driver currently faces a $107,500 bond, which Dunn says he cannot afford.
“There’s no question that my client has individuals in the community that would vouch for his reputation, that he is of good moral character, that he is reliable, that he is responsible,” Dunn said. “As somber as this case is, truly nothing about these charges makes my client a risk of non-appearance if he were to be given a reasonable bond.”
Judge Poole promised to revisit the issue of a reduced bond on or before Walker’s next court date of October 3, 2017. In the meantime, Walker will remain in isolation in Hamilton County Jail.
Theories Abound Regarding Cause of the Woodmore Elementary School Bus Crash
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report on the Woodmore Elementary school bus crash in January of 2017. The report indicated that Walker was not following his assigned bus route, and that, at the time of the tragedy, he appeared to be driving at least 20 miles faster than the posted speed limit.
The NTSB’s report added fuel to arguments that the deaths of six students on board were preventable. Allegations have also been raised that Hamilton County Schools, Durham School Services, and the Transportation Supervisor had a hand in the incident by failing to take sufficient action to ensure the safety of the 37 students, from kindergarten to grade five, on board the bus.
Was a Second Vehicle Involved in the Bus Accident?
Most theories on the cause of the Tennessee school bus crash have revolved around Walker’s suspected speed and route, but Dunn says that there is evidence (including video evidence) that another vehicle was on the same road and that Walker was avoiding being struck by that vehicle when he went off the road.
“This is not necessarily an open and shut case,” Dunn said. “We’ve presented evidence to the court this morning that we think calls into question criminal liability in this case.”
The video, which shows a white van departing a nearby Sonic Drive-In in the same direction of the crash, may be corroborated by an eyewitness account that detailed Walker swerving to avoid the white van on the narrow road the bus was traveling down. The prosecution, however, has said it will show evidence that proves the video and account are unverified and has drawn attention to the fact that the eyewitness presented differing statements when interviewed separately by the National Transportation Safety Board and the police.
Was Tennessee School Bus Driver “Sadistic?”
Walker had no criminal record before the 34 charges against regarding the Chattanooga school bus crash, which include six vehicular homicide charges. His attorneys have portrayed him as a quiet, respectful individual with a four-year-old son, who was working hard to provide for his family with two jobs, despite not having a car and having to skateboard to work.
Accounts of Walker at work, however, tell a more troubling story. Reports say that Walker was involved in a separate accident in September of 2016 while driving a different school bus. Walker had veered into oncoming traffic and collided with an SUV while entering a blind curve. Both the school bus and SUV sustained minor damage, but no children were injured.
The federal lawsuit filed against Hamilton County Schools, Durham School Services, and the Transportation Supervisor says that Walker was “sadistic” and drove recklessly and that parents had complained about his dangerous driving in the past, but to no avail. It has also been reported that the principal of Woodmore Elementary himself raised concerns over Walker’s driving, saying that he sped while departing school grounds.
Concerns Continue Over School Bus Safety
Walker’s case continues to navigate the court system, while even more incidents involving school buses have further called into question the school bus safety and school bus driver screening.
A collision between two school buses in Charlotte, North Carolina, sent at least eleven students to the hospital on September 5, 2017. One of the students on the bus said they believed the other school bus that struck their bus appeared to be going too fast. The month before, the driver of a charter bus transporting students on a class trip to Washington, D.C. was charged for his role in a May 15, 2017, bus crash that hospitalized one student and a woman in another vehicle. Clarence C. Beamer, Jr. was charged with negligent driving as well as failing to drive in a designated lane.