A new memoir by Kari Hoglund Kounkel on the events surrounding a 1997 school bus tragedy in Monticello, Minnesota provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the impact, not only on the community but also herself, and how it relates to the latest school-bus, seat-belt discussions.
As demonstrated through her life story, unexpected tragedies like a school bus crash have lasting impact on many, not the least of which are student transporters. "Unspoken Sorrow: Whispers from a Broken Heart" is currently available for the Kindle. Kounkel says it aims to shed light on how student transportation services can be highly scrutinized in the media — often unfairly so — and the intensive thought and effort being poured into ensuring school buses across the country and the 25 million kids who ride them are as safe as they can be.
Kounkel’s story and her own current efforts on the technology front is but one example of the ongoing dedication and care being poured into school transportation each day.
One April morning in 1997, a school bus carrying 13 schoolchildren was traveling down a dirt road just outside of a small Minnesota town. A gravel truck did not yield to a posted stop sign and collided with the bus at the intersection. Both vehicles travelled about 100 feet from the point of impact. The truck driver and three students sustained fatal injuries and died.
The school transportation system in Monticello had been run by the Hoglund family for 30 years at the time of the accident. Kounkel started as an accountant for Hoglund Transportation and rose to a main administrative role in the company, while also serving as executive secretary of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association.
When the crash occurred, her parents were out of town, so she had to handle the majority of the operations that day, including accounting for the whereabouts of all the children who were transported to various local hospitals, complying with a regulatory review of the mangled bus and injured driver, avoiding the aggressive media, and receiving news of the three child fatalities. Kounkel recounts her feeling of helplessness while dealing with the myriad issues that day.
Professional and Personal Effects
Kounkel and Hoglund Transportation were absolved of any wrongdoing as investigators determined the bus did not have any defects. The report issued in 1999 concluded that “there was still no identifiable cause and no one to blame.”
Despite being meticulous and “proud of the way we trained drivers and maintained our vehicles,” Hoglund recalls how reporters asked what could have been done differently that day. The need for seat belt legislation again became a big topic for debate, and Kounkel herself was forever changed.
“I’d lost all confidence in any of the rules and boundaries I’d used to structure not only my job, but my entire being,” she writes.
As time went on, Kounkel says she faced many hurdles in her personal life. The crash left her with flashbacks and PTSD, which created emotional barriers in her marriage. By 2009, she writes, her husband was having affairs and then became abusive. In despair, to drown the “guilt, rage, pain, and fear,” Kounkel began to drink heavily and even spent some days in jail. Finally entering a recovery program last year, she “found a new sense of spirituality and connection with God” that began to turn her life around. She also saw how some of the injured victims had overcome physical challenges to lead fulfilling lives. Hope for her own future was renewed.
Seatbelts and the JAK App
Predictably, the school-bus, seat-belt controversy was resurrected as a result of the crash. However, Kounkel remains an opponent of the occupant restraints for buses, and she expresses her frustration over how the media “sensationalized” the crash and neglected to discuss school bus compartmentalization—the high-backed padded seats that minimized damage to children in the event of a frontal or rear crash.
She concurs with a 1984 study published by the National School Transportation Association (NTSA) that found “many interested and well-meaning individuals are not informed of the safety record of school buses, the safety features incorporated into school bus construction, and why seat belts are not mandated or needed on school buses.”
In the furor immediately following the crash, Kounkel notes that the only school bus seat belts available at the time of the Monticello crash were two-point lap belts, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now says can cause abdominal injuries to students, and she stresses that the biggest threat to the safety of schoolchildren on buses are other motorists being negligent near school buses, such as driving past stop arms during student loading and unloading.
Last year, Kounkel also became passionate about using technology in an attempt to solve some of her transportation “frustrations.” She began developing the JAK app. With a “focus on gathering and presenting information in effective and efficient formats,” she explains, the tool aims to assist in the following three areas of school transportation:
- Safety of everyone on the bus through driver training and electronic messaging between the driver, parents and management in the event of emergency.
- Compliance on federal and state regulations and mandates, updates on which are sent through the app.
- Efficiency suggestions provided to management, thanks to user data received and processed by the app.
“Sometimes, in this world, bad things just happen. There isn’t always a reason or a cure or a fix. It took me years to submit to that simple truth,” Kounkel writes in her book.