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Eighth-graders led push to put cameras on school buses

Mar 17, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Kids 'wanted to make a change'

Pavillion students were instrumental in getting legislation passed this year to improve safety on school buses in Wyoming.

They were motivated by the 2011 death of Wind River Elementary School student MaKayla Marie Strahle, 11, of Crowheart, who died when a motorist struck her with his vehicle as she exited the bus after school.

Wind River Middle School principal Jeff Verosky said Strahle's death inspired her peers to take action.

"They wanted to make a change," he said.

They began by asking the Fremont County School District 6 Board of Trustees for permission to travel to Cheyenne last year to address Wyoming's Joint Education Committee.

'Talking about the grief'

"At that point they were just kind of telling our story," Verosky said. "They were talking about the grief that the school had felt, and that they had a desire to change the law based on school bus safety."

The meeting touched on accident prevention and public education, as well as prosecution for people who pass by buses while students are being dropped off.

Last summer, Verosky said legislators contacted the school expressing their interest in a bus safety law.

"They decided to move forward with a bill requiring all school buses to have external cameras on them," he said. "When the lights of the bus go on to notify drivers that there is loading or unloading, these cameras start up."

The recording devices are able to capture images of nearby vehicles, making it easier to prosecute drivers who fail to yield to school buses. Verosky said it can be difficult for school drivers to keep track of motorists who "fly by" the bus.

"(Our drivers) are looking around and making sure traffic isn't coming, but then their attention goes back to the kids," Verosky said.

"So if a car does blow by, a lot of times the (school bus) driver can't get a license plate or even a make and model of the vehicle. ... These cameras help with that."

Lobbying lawmakers

He added that external cameras weren't the "main push" for the Wind River students initially. But once legislators started to move forward with, the idea the young people joined in the effort wholeheartedly, sending e-mails to representatives and county commissioners throughout the state looking for support.

The school resource officer in Pavillion also contacted Wyoming law enforcement agencies, Verosky said.

The effort paid off: House Bill 5 - now Enrolled Act 23 - was signed into law on March 7, requiring school buses transporting students to and from school and related activities to be equipped with external video systems by school year 2016-2017.

Verosky said a group of students also went to Cheyenne this month to hear discussion about the bill in the Wyoming Senate, and on Friday, March 7, they were invited to a signing ceremony with Gov. Matt Mead.

"We took our whole eighth-grade class down, along with other students who had been working on it," Verosky said, noting that MaKayla Strahle would have been in eighth grade this year. "They got to go in and watch the governor ... sign the bill. Then the governor went around and introduced himself to all the students and gave them a pen for the signing."

Strahle's parents were present at the event as well.

"It was a great learning experience for the kids on how the legislative process works, and how a bunch of students from Pavillion could have an impact on the laws of Wyoming," Verosky said.

Wind River High School senior Tanner Stover was one of the students who lobbied for HB5. He didn't know Strahle personally, but he was friends with her older brother.

"Seeing how (her death) affected him, that was one of my reasons for doing it," he said of his efforts over the past year.

Safer for everyone

Stover hopes the new school bus cameras, combined with improved public awareness, will go a long way toward improving student safety in Wyoming.

"It may deter the people that pass the school buses, because they know they'll be caught doing it," he said. "Word will spread. I think it's a good preventive measure. I think it's a good start."

Verosky said the students also have been working with the Wyoming Department of Transportation to produce billboards and bumper stickers encouraging people not to pass school buses that are dropping off children.

Stover plans to participate in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps when he graduates high school, and in the future he said he would like to be an elected official or a lobbyist. He encouraged other students and Wyoming residents to get involved in their communities like the Wind River students did.

"We're high school students and middle school students out here, and we know that we can do it," he said.

"We know people have the power to do this, to talk to their representatives and all that, but a lot of people don't. I'd say step outside of the box - that's one of the things democracy offers, is you can have a say. So take your say and do something with it."