A dedicated school bus driver, quick-thinking students and concerned citizens helped prevent disaster during a frightening incident of a man with a knife forcing his way onto a school bus in San Diego County, Calif.
A Mountain Empire Unified School District bus was picking up students on its morning route on Friday, May 25, when a man ran up to the vehicle. The 78-year-old bus driver, Harold Brandt, thought the man, Matthew Barker, was a parent who needed to tell him something and opened the bus loading door, explained Sgt. William Uelen of the San Diego Sherriff’s Department.
Ignoring the bus driver’s verbal warnings that he could not board the bus, as well as the driver’s attempts to physically restrain him, Barker pushed his way onto the bus and pulled out a “large butcher knife,” said Deputy District Attorney Taren Brast. She reported that Barker had the knife in his hand as he tried to make his way further onto the bus, while calling for his two children and niece who were passengers to come with him.
The 14-year-old niece was nearly cut as she helped the bus driver hold Barker back as he waved the knife around and struggled with the driver. Barker punched the driver in the face, got on top of him on a bus seat and slashed toward it with the knife, cutting into the seat behind him.
Despite fearing that Barker was going to break his arm, the driver held on, demonstrating the very best qualities hoped for in any school bus driver.
“Be prepared, not scared. Don’t be in denial. School violence can happen anywhere,” advised professor and former STN EXPO keynote speaker Dr. Stephen Sroka in a recent blog post.
The “crying and scared” students made their way to the back of the bus, where “a couple of brave” older students helped the younger ones out of the rear emergency door, said Brast. Sgt Uelen notd that an older student, later identified as 12-year-old Jesus Jimenez, was one of the first to direct the 20 other students to the back emergency exit.
The students calling for help caught the attention of a grandmother, who came aboard to help the driver get Barker off the bus. Another parent was able to flag down a man passing by while on his way to work.
The “Good Samaritan” passerby “actually heard (the driver) saying ‘He’s got the knife to my head,’ and was able to wrestle the knife away before anyone was cut or injured,” Sgt. Uelen said.
When sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene, the adults had removed Barker from the school bus. He was “mostly unresponsive and kind of incoherent, rambling,” and was taken into custody, said Sgt. Uelen. He added that a second knife believed to be Barker’s was later found under a seat on the bus.
An official statement from the district said that “the bus driver responded immediately to keep himself and the children safe,” and that neither the driver nor any students were hurt. Another school bus took the students to school, and counselors were available on Tuesday.
“It’s normally a very quiet, peaceful community, and when these things happen, we suspect drugs were involved,” Sgt. Uelen added.
Barker was charged on Thursday with misdemeanor charges of child endangerment, plus several felony charges of attempted kidnapping, attempted carjacking, elder abuse with a knife and assault.
“This defendant was extremely dangerous during the incident; he had a weapon. We are concerned about not only the safety of his children—who he had custody of, as well as his niece—but all of the children on the bus and the safety of the community in general,” said Brast during the court hearing on Thursday. “He clearly was out of control during this incident, so drugs may have played a role.”
The San Diego Union Tribune reported that Barker, who is currently on probation, has past misdemeanor convictions for resisting arrest, making a criminal threat, drunken driving and driving on a suspended license.
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