Journalist Discusses Production of ‘Safe Enough?’ School Bus Seatbelt Documentary

A still from the Montana PBS documentary
A still from the Montana PBS documentary "Safe Enough?" shows a student buckling up on the school bus.

School Transportation News spoke with journalist Anna D. Rau about her documentary, “Safe Enough?” Rau, who is also the director and producer, walked us through her feelings and goals as she put the documentary together.

“Safe Enough?” was released last fall and was developed in response to the 2008 death of 7-year-old Sarah Fark, who was ejected from her school bus that was not equipped with lap/shoulder seatbelts. The documentary was nominated for a regional Emmy Award and won Montana’s E.B. Craney Award for Noncommercial Program of the Year. It was also shown on the STN EXPO Reno Trade Show floor in July.

School Transportation News:  Why did you produce this documentary? What made you want to look at this topic?

Anna D. Rau

Rau: I wanted it to inspire strong feelings. And Missoula [County Public Schools in Montana], just had its first couple of days with students in seatbelts. So, our students just started on [Tuesday, Sept. 3] and for the first day ever, they got on school buses with seatbelts because of the documentary. The superintendent saw it and he put seatbelts on school buses after watching it.

So I was pretty stoked about that. It made a difference. So in that way as a journalist, it was pretty gratifying to know that getting the truth out and information out there is making a difference in at least in one jurisdiction, and I don’t know in how many others.

I have a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter. She was just about three and a half when her preschool said that it was going to be taking field trips and riding city buses. So, I asked if there were seatbelts on city buses, and there are not.

I was driving around and I saw school buses and I thought, they didn’t have [seatbelts] back when I was a kid, in the 1970s and 1980s, I wonder if they have them now? And then I did some research, and I had just assumed they were on the buses at this point, and the fact that they weren’t, was shocking to me.

And then I did some more research and I found out that not only do they not have them in Montana but that there was a fatality that, from what everybody said and how it looks, would have been completely mitigated. She wouldn’t have died if she was wearing a seatbelt. So, it was clearly a lack of seatbelt-related death.

So that cemented the idea that we should do this documentary, even if it’s only one death, over how many years. But then I found out about all the injuries, too. It’s not just deaths, it’s the injuries, and people don’t talk about that. There is no tracking of the injuries, and so it set me on it. But having a preschool-aged child that was going to ride the city buses and then school buses is what had queued me up to it.

STN: Can you walk me through your personal experience while doing this documentary? Why do you choose to interview certain people?

Rau: Well, I wanted somebody that was an expert on the history and why we got to this point without adding [seatbelts.] And there were good reasons early on because of the lap belt—if it was just lap belts that could be internally damaging, and cause whiplash and do different things. So early on, if they were talking just lap belts on school buses, that could possibly be very damaging in those front-end collisions. And even if you had a rollover, they wouldn’t protect like a lap/shoulder belt would.

I talked to Charlie Vits, [market development manager at IMMI] because he is somebody who has followed this issue forever. And I initially was concerned because he’s in the industry and [IMMI] manufactures products that protect children in seatbelts So, there was a monetary thing. I asked him questions about why he got into this job, why he did what he did, and his backstory was a good one. It convinced me that he is not just saying these things because he wants to make money. He is saying these things because he feels like it’s the right thing to do.

So, I talked with him, and the hard part about all this was that Sarah Fark’s family had been very vocal after she died—well, her father had been very vocal about adding seatbelts. And he went to the legislature and pushed for them and was absolutely shut down and crushed by it. And he had been interviewed by the media and been open about it. So, based on all the researching and reading that I did, I thought he would be willing to talk with me in this documentary.

As it turns out, 10 years after the fact and after a crushing defeat at the legislature and repeated defeats at the legislature he was just a shell. He had nothing left to give. He had been hurt so badly, and talking with him, is one of the saddest conversations I have ever had as a reporter/journalist.

I don’t think I have ever talked to anybody that had such a well of sadness. It was really, really sad. So, he was unwilling and unable to talk to me. And his family had disconnected from all this and didn’t want to send me pictures.

Then the Montana Highway Patrol had an investigative file on this. I did a Freedom of Information Act for it, but they had just destroyed it because they destroy documents at the 10-year mark. So months earlier, they destroyed all the photographs of the scene, reports, and there was a video of the scene—I wasn’t ever going to show anyone deceased—but I wanted to show what they had because there was very little that the [local news stations had].

And then, of course, the family not being willing to talk just cut the heart out of it. Because the way that people identify was with the loss of this little girl and not as a statistic, but to hear it from the family. The best I could do was say he couldn’t talk and that he had been crushed by this.

And then I talked to [Darlend Schlueter] who was a first responder on the scene. The way I found her was there were a couple of articles that had been done on the school bus crash and I read the comment section afterward. I found that she had commented—I was the first person on the scene and I helped to try and save her and it was horrible and we should put seatbelts on school buses.

I tracked her down and that’s how I got her. [Schlueter] and the highway patrol officer, [retired trooper Toby Baukema] were the heart of the story, they made people care. And knowing about Sarah and seeing her picture and thinking that she would be 18 now.

It was hard for me because I have a little girl and to see that and hear people say that she was an expectable statistic. And that’s kind of what they told Sarah’s father. It costs too much money, and we know we are going to lose a kid here and there, but it doesn’t negate the fact that it costs too much money.

The other really cool aspect about it when I started doing the research was that Helena just went and [put seatbelts on school buses] on their own. They didn’t have the legislature approve it, they found the money and they did it. I didn’t know that they had a permissive levy in Montana that any school district in the state can do it without any extra appropriation from the legislature. Helena was doing it, and Helena already did it, and they had this experience of doing it. That was great.

[The documentary] had a school district that did it, here is a personal story where it was clear that it would have been helpful if she wearing a seatbelt, and we had kind of all the pieces to do it in Montana and then expanded it out to a national feel. These are the states that have done it, this is what is happening nationally and then to use us as an example to educate people on the issue. That was my process.

What was interesting, too, was the highway patrol officer in the documentary … when I first talked to him on the phone, he had made it sound like that he hadn’t really thought about this crash, that it hadn’t really had much impact on him, and he hadn’t thought about whether seatbelts should be on school buses. It was almost like he was dissuading me from trying to interview him. So, I wasn’t even going to interview him, I thought I was just going to skip it, because I was like, oh my gosh, this guy is so lukewarm on the whole thing. It was odd though, he remembered all the details, but he made it sound like it was just another crash, and I feel like that’s a defensive mechanism that first responders and people put up to just kind of let it go, and not get too invested in it. So, I thought about skipping the interview, but I was like, well I’m over in Billings and the [Schleuter] was good but I needed something else. So, I was like, I’ll sit down with him.

He was 100 percent different in the sit-down interview. It was the biggest difference I have ever had between a pre-interview on the phone and a sit-down interview. I was shocked, every word that he said. I went to the photographer after, ‘Were you hanging on every word he said—Yes I was.’ He was just absolutely amazing. And I think it was because on the phone when I talked to him, he was thinking I am going to keep this very professional, you know how highway patrol officers are, ‘[in a monotone voice] the vehicle traveled 25 feet and came to rest upside-down at a 180-degree angle.’ They are just very clinical and or whatever you want to say. But when you sit down and start talking to them, his true feelings came out and that was a shockingly fabulous interview. He did a wonderful job. He was trying to stay cool and detached, but the [crash] did affect him, and he said it did. Just knowing seatbelts would have made such a difference, yeah, he was very serious, it did affect him.


Related: PBS Documentary Asks if School Buses Are ‘Safe Enough’ Without Lap/Shoulder Seatbelts
Related: Iowa Becomes Fifth State to Require Lap/Shoulder Seatbelts In School Buses
Related: School Bus Lap/Shoulder Seatbelts: Are Students Safe Enough Without Them?
Related: Panel Reviews Recent Adoption of Lap-Shoulder Seatbelts for School Buses
Related: A Changed Seatbelt Perspective at STN EXPO Indy


STN: What were your goals with the documentary, and how have they changed since it was released?

Rau: I honestly, this is the first one where I thought, these details and these facts might initiate some change, and people might say, I am informed now and as a parent, I am okay with some of my tax dollars going towards this. On the one hand, I was very surprised how fast the Missoula superintendent—so I had tried to talk to the superintendent of Missoula schools prior to the documentary, and they didn’t want to talk to me, and the message was, school buses are safe we don’t need seatbelts. After it aired, within the next day, he asked people to meet with him and watch the documentary together and started the process of adding seatbelts. It totally changed his mind about seatbelts on school buses.

The other thing that surprised me—and this is the way it has always been in terms of seatbelts on school buses—there wasn’t more of an outcry from parents saying ‘hey I watched this documentary, what has been going on.’ Sometimes, when I do these documentaries, I get all these emails and phone calls, so I was fully expecting parents to be up in arms, but they are not. I don’t know why. I got a couple, I didn’t get a ton, but I got a couple. I just don’t know if people didn’t see it, or they saw it and go, oh that should be enough. Nobody called me and said I went to my school board after watching this, I know some people did, I know it had an impact on school bus drivers in the state. Many who had been opposed to this idea for a while, suddenly they were like, nope, not only are we not opposed we are going to organize groups to push it at the legislature. And at the legislature, there wasn’t the resistance there had been before.

So, [Lance Melton, executive director of Montana School Boards Associations] basically said, we decided not to come out in opposition, we stayed neutral, which is a totally different position for them. And when I talked to him about the concussions of compartmentalization, that really resonated with him. He was kind of freaked out about that, because that has implications for sports and it a serious thing to suffer a concussion, wherein a school bus if you had been wearing a seatbelt and not slammed into the seat in front of you—and it could be great, you can combine compartmentalization with the seatbelts and you would have a really safe thing.

So, that’s been the surprising part, I thought more people would be up in arms, but I also was surprised by how fast action was taken by a local school district after the right person saw it.

STN: After seeing the actual crash test demonstrations, how did you feel? And, what impact do those videos have?

Rau: For me, they were shocking to watch. Especially imagining that there could be a little kid in there. And we know, sometimes that this does happen to little kids. The crash tests are very dramatic visuals of what really does happen in these real crashes. So, I think, you could never show the interior camera, I don’t think you could, of a bus of kids being thrown to the ceiling where there is a fatal accident. Right, these are kids. The only way to show how dramatic these crashes are when they rollover or in a side-impact is with those crash test dummies. And you don’t need to go any more dramatic than that. So, I think they would dramatically influence so that people can wrap their heads around to how dangerous buses can be in these really rare accidents. And, even side-impact crashes and compartmentation, to show what that looks like. Right, because you hear this idea, and you hear it explained to you, well ‘it’s an egg carton, and they are all nestled in their little spots and when there is an accident, they are kept in their seat by the squishy seat in front of them,’ it sounds so idealistic. And then you see it, and you’re like wow, wow, I don’t want my kid doing that. If that is your protection, I don’t want it. I would like a seatbelt on my kid. Even compartmentation does not look good in those crash tests. In my opinion, this is all as a parent and a journalist, this is really what it looks like. And then I can let parents decide, does that look okay to you? Are you cool with that? Are you fine with that type of protection if your child gets into these crashes?

The school bus driver who I interviewed, she said there was one time that she got into a very low-speed crash, I forget what she said, but something happened, she hit the brakes and some girls went into the seats in front of them, like they are supposed to do, and got blood all over their faces and they were crying. She was devastated by that level of injury and these kids were scared and freaked out by that. And then there are broken arms, legs, pelvis’s, other things that happen with that type of protection. So, I feel like, the crash test shows the current form of protection to not be sufficient. I think it was just shocking, I didn’t know these videos were out there until I googled it.

The other thing I was struck by how fast these happen and how fast Sarah’s life was over. There was nothing they could do for her. There was no surgery they could have gotten her to fast enough, the sad part is, after the crash happened, she was trying to get up and she was asking for her mother, which makes me almost cry right now. She was not knowing that she was mortally wounded already, it was over for her. That is so horrible, with just a seatbelt you would be fine, fine. It just boggles my mind and the parent, the dad showing up, it’s just devastating. And I think, car crashes are quite devasting, that’s why we have all of these different safety implements to help people, but they still happen, and it’s still going to happen. It was so fast that young life was over, where it could have been so easy for it not to be over, it’s just devasting.

STN: SafeGuard/IMMI held a crash test demonstration at the STN EXPO Indy this past summer and seeing that in person was hard to watch. The energy there was unreal.

Rau: Like you said, all that energy is just expelled right there, and then the human body takes it and that’s it. It was a very sad documentary, I had times where I was right on the edge of breaking down, and I have never had that. Very little, there was one other story that I did when I was a young cub reporter that I was very close to breaking down on that one too. But I kept it mostly together until the gal that was the first responder asked me how I was doing. I was like, ‘don’t ask how I am doing, let’s just talk about you.’ When we were out at the scene, and that was the first time you see her out at the scene. You see her so senseless, that’s the first time she had been back at the scene for a long time, and then she was finding that teddy bear, and she found the old flowers. I was thinking about how are these still here. It was like a metaphor for how much has not changed.

So, you can tell I am an advocate on this one, I am not usually, I usually take and let things fall where they may, but when a kid’s life is at stake, and there’s money to make sure they are not. Children are terribly injured in these accidents, why wouldn’t you do it? All that being said, had there been adequate good reasoning for not doing this, I am open to that. I was open to that, I just deemed what they had to say, pretty much, the truth was hurtful; that it costs too much, and we are willing to lose some kids, and that is the truth.

Editor’s Note: Watch the full documentary at Montana PBS. Read an article regarding the implementation of seatbelts in school buses in the October issue of STN.