Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on stop-arm violations in the Westonka school district.
Two school bus stops on Interlachen Road in Spring Park, not far from Wilkes Park, have gotten a bad rap, not because of the school bus driver or the kids but because they’ve made the top three list in the Westonka School District for stop arm violations.
“It is a real problem on that road,” said Vicky Seymore, a bus driver for Westonka who has driven the same route for 12 years.
The stop at Interlachen and Channel and the one at Rose Hill Lane a block away are two of the worst in the district for these violations, said Officer Steve Sturm of Orono Police. Sturm said the Wilshire and Tuxedo stop on Phelps Island was another problem area.
“Bus drivers are expecting when they open up that arm to let kids cross that people are going to stop,” said Brenda Coser. Coser said that her daughter, a seventh-grader at Grandview Middle School who catches the bus at Interlachen and Channel, had her backpack clipped by an illegally passing vehicle during the first week of school this year – and that wasn’t the only incident.
Coser, who is one of 48 members of the Westonka Concerns for Safe Busing Facebook group, said she’s witnessed violations every year but that it seemed worse this year.
But numbers from the Minnetrista and Orono police departments don’t match this perception entirely: Minnetrista issued five citations during each of the past three school years, but not all of these were able to be charged, and only one citation has resulted from the four reported incidents from the current school year.
Orono police have issued six, two and four citations for 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. The department could not provide the total number of incidents (charged and not charged) because the department codes these incidents more generically and groups them with other traffic violations, according to a representative from the department.
But officers on the ground, like Sturm, also say that many more incidents happen than ever get charged. Even though Orono has cited only four drivers this calendar year, Sturm said he alone has looked into 14 such cases just since September; two additional reports also showed up in Minnetrista’s blotter for the week of Dec. 15-21.
“I can’t catch these vehicles fast enough to get their license numbers, said Seymore. For reports to turn into citations, witnesses have to take down not just the make and color of the vehicle but the license plate number – a difficult thing to grab off a moving vehicle. Seymore said she had brought the issue to her former supervisor and requested the cash to purchase a small dash cam for the bus but that her request was denied.
“Every time a car has been caught it’s been Vicky calling to the kids, ‘Catch that license plate!’ or in a couple of cases, if it’s a back-up bus driver, them having their phones up on the dash and catching people,” said Coser.
That very thing happened Dec. 9 when a substitute bus driver, a former deputy, was able to catch the needed details of a vehicle illegally passing at one of the stops on Interlachen. Sturm was able to catch up with the driver and make a citation, in part because of the hard evidence provided by the camera.
“All we want is for our buses to be safe, but a cop can’t be sitting at every bus stop, every day,” said Coser.
Both Seymore and Coser contend that the school district’s move to later start times led to more incidents of drivers blowing through the stop arm because the buses now run during peak rush hour. “These people are in a hurry and can’t be bothered to stop for a school bus,” said Seymore.
Kevin Borg, superintendent for Westonka Schools, said that although later start times may have played a role in the increased number of violations so, too, could the rerouting of certain buses due to the County Road 44 closure.
Borg met with a handful of parents earlier this school year to hear about the issue and continues to urge those with concerns to contact either himself or the district’s transportation department. He also pointed out that the district has worked with local officials in the past to supplement its own precautions, including co-funding with Hennepin County for several years to have a crossing guard outside the middle school.
“We want to do what we can to make sure they have a safe ride,” said Borg.