When Eric Watkins first heard that Dale County, Ala., school bus driver Charles Poland, Jr., had been fatally shot Jan. 29 while protecting students from an armed, on-board trespasser, the transportation director of Stewart County Schools in Dover, Tenn., was immediately transported back to March 2, 2005.
“My memories on that morning was of Joyce being shot,” Watkins said, referring to Joyce Gregory, an employee of Stewart County Schools who was shot and killed behind the wheel by then 14-year-old student Jason Clinard.
Clinard was tried and convicted as an adult two years later and now is serving life in prison. He shot Gregory because she had reported him to school administrators for using smokeless tobacco on the bus.
Though the details between both incidents differ, both school bus drivers are hailed as heroes for protecting the students in their care no matter the consequences.
After the shooting earlier this week, Watkins contacted the transportation director of Dale County, Mickey Outlaw, to offer his condolences and any help.
“He was very emotional, we talked for about 15 minutes,” Watkins said.
Watkins could imagine what Outlaw was going through that day. He recounted what the day was like for him after Gregory was shot.
“It was very chaotic. We controlled it at best as we could, but it was very emotional,” he said. “One of my reactions was a feeling of guilt … Was there something I should have been doing?”
But during this time, Watkins also had to focus and remember to do what he needed to do. “Then I had to go back to remembering that I’ve got kids to get home, so I had to get substitute drivers,” he added.
As a result of that incident, Watkins said he had each of his 44 buses equipped with video cameras. Coincidentally, Poland's bus was equipped with a camera system that reportedly showed an interaction with gunmen and hostage taker Jimmy Lee Dykes that lasted several minutes.
“We do not run any buses without an extensive video monitoring system,” he said.
And thankfully, Watkins didn’t struggle with retaining his current bus drivers or hiring new drivers afterwards.
“The bus drivers never said a word. They looked at their job a little differently. Not only did they drive, they wanted to drive because they knew that that’s what Joyce would have wanted to do. And for about a year after the incident, I’d tell new drivers, ‘You know someone got murdered here, right?’ and so far I have not run anybody off.”
Watkins hopes the industry as a whole can learn from these tragedies and find ways to improve drivers’ working conditions and increase safety not just for students, but for them as well.
A comment posted on a website created by a Pennsylvania bus driver that includes a page just on Gregory’s story could also be applied to Poland. He wrote: “The murder of Joyce Gregory reverberates in every city and town because every city and town operates yellow school buses, just like the one in which Joyce Gregory was slain.”