New law requires school bus route changes for student safety

As a 7-year-old Clinton Elementary School student walked off a school bus Monday afternoon on La. 67, the bus driver deployed the vehicle’s flashing stop signs to halt drivers on the state highway.

But a 67-year-old Baker man driving a Ford Explorer did not see the stop signs and ran into the girl as she crossed the highway, said Trooper First Class Jared Sandifer, a State Police spokesman.

The driver, Hoyt Norwood, was cited for passing a school bus and operating a vehicle with a suspended license.

The impact left the girl with several broken bones and put into focus a new state law passed in the recent legislative session aimed at preventing these kind of accidents.

The law, Act 654, sponsored by state Rep. Neil Abramson, R-New Orleans, and state Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, requires school districts to change where and how they load and unload students at bus stops.

But not all school districts have fully implemented the mandated changes, including East Feliciana and East Baton Rouge parishes.

According to the new law, students must now be picked up or dropped off on a road shoulder, parking lot or any other off-road location the school system approves. But students cannot be let off or picked up at a location that requires them to cross a road or highway.

Bus drivers are also prohibited from loading or unloading students who are near their home while the bus sits in a travel lane, except when there is no shoulder and then the bus must be in the farthest right lane so the student does not have to cross traffic.

The bill originally said the law would apply only to municipalities with more than 300,000 people, but that language was deleted in the House.

Henderson Lewis Jr., superintendent of schools for East Feliciana Parish, said they are working toward complying with the law and he plans to meet with his transportation director Wednesday.

He was unsure where they were on the road to implementation, but said they will have to change their bus routes to meet the law’s mandate.

Lewis said one thing that may delay the full implementation in his school system and others with financial issues is that more buses may be needed to handle the possibility of additional routes.

The Ascension Parish school system faced that problem several years ago when it changed its bus routes to keep children from crossing streets and highways.

Patrice Pujol, superintendent of the Ascension school district, said they made the change slowly over several years and staggered the purchase of the buses.

Pujol admitted there are some parts of the parish where it is almost impossible for children not to have to cross roads, but she said no children cross major highways before or after getting on or off a bus.

Pujol said the change initially drew the ire of some parents because it meant longer routes and children getting home from school later.

The new law went into effect on Aug. 1, but does not give a deadline for full compliance, something Murray asked the state Attorney General’s Office to issue an opinion on.

Murray also asked the office whether the law applies to two-lane roads, multi-lane highways or both.

In the opinion issued July 28, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell wrote that by the time the law takes effect, school systems will have already put into place their route structure for the 2014-15 school year.

Given that time constraint, the opinion states that each district will be given “reasonable time” to comply with the law and must complete the process “as soon as reasonably possible.”

“What constitutes a ‘reasonable time’ will vary from district to district, taking into account the circumstances and challenges particular to each district,” Caldwell wrote. “It is logical to assume that the Legislature recognized that a variety of factors, including fiscal and logistical challenges, may result in some school systems requiring more time than others to implement these changes.”

The opinion also states that the law applies to two-lane roads and highways like La. 67, not just multilane highways.

Keith Bromery, spokesman for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said they are also working toward compliance with the law, but it might take a while for urban school systems like East Baton Rouge to adjust to all the nuances of the new law.

He said they may have to change or add new routes.

“We will comply with the law,” Bromery said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter, @ryanmbroussard.