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Perry County mother charged with unlawfully entering school bus to help a son she thought was ill
Saturday, July 23, 2011, 12:00 AM
If Tara Keener had known that her 5-year-old son was only sleeping, she might not have acted this way.
But Keener, an emergency room nurse, didn’t know. All she knew was what she could see through the windows of a big yellow school bus as she walked down her Perry County driveway. Other kids were standing over the kindergartner’s assigned seat, yelling that Xander was slumped over.
“Help, he’s not moving,” she recalled during a recent court hearing. “We can’t wake him up.”
So she ran to the bus, up the steps and to the landing. The driver told her she couldn’t get on the bus. It’s against the law.
Keener kept going. “My focus was on my son,” she told a judge.
What happened on that bus Dec. 15 has earned Keener a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully entering a school bus. She’s now awaiting trial in Perry County Court.
The bus company remembers the story a little differently, and reported the incident — as they are required by law — to the state police because the driver asked Keener to leave the bus and she refused.
They say no one was screaming ‘help,’ that Xander was sleeping, like he had before and the driver wasn’t given enough time to handle the situation herself.
“Everyone’s focused on, he wasn’t really sick,” said Keener’s attorney Jeffrey B. Engle. “How do you know that? He could be choking on a Jolly Rancher. I can hop a fence to save someone who is drowning, even if it says ‘Keep Out’ if the harm sought to be avoided is greater than the possible violation of the crime.”
Engle would not allow Keener to comment for this story because of her pending court case.
At a June 15 preliminary hearing, Keener testified that older kids were hovering over Xander when she got on the bus.
“They moved away and looked at me like they were scared and said they couldn’t wake him,” she testified. “I had to physically shake him vigorously to wake him.”
Keener never thought this would land her in court, Engle says. After all, she and her husband had boarded a school bus with their son before as part of a program to help kids get over their fears in the first few days of school.
And days after the incident, a trooper told her she wasn’t going to be charged.
Then almost five months later Keener received a notice in the mail: She was facing a third-degree misdemeanor — an offense that lead to jail for a year, and a $2,500 fine.
Why the delay? Perry County District Attorney Charles F. Chenot III — who initially said this was one of those situations that could go either way — said he changed his mind after a conversation with Pamala Schaeffer, the assistant to Dennis Dum. Dum’s Bus Service is contracted by West Perry Schools to transport all district children to school each day.
“The bus company’s main point is, we can’t let one person do this because pretty soon you’ll have all kinds of parents on there,” Chenot said. “Most parents aren’t a problem, but what do you do when a ... sex offender wants to get on the bus and get his kids off? We need to have that protection in place.”
Here’s where things get a little murky.
Schaeffer remembers the conversation differently. She said she had no intention of persuading the county’s top prosecutor and says she was just as shocked when she got a call in April notifying her that Keener had been charged.
“I was completely dumfounded, because we thought it was resolved,” she said. “I wasn’t looking to convince him to change his mind,” she said. “I was just asking for my own personal education to know from Mr. Chenot, what determines good cause.”
Schaeffer said she sympathizes with Keener’s situation, but felt she was simply doing her job: reporting a violation on a school bus.
Chenot stands firm in his belief that bus company was the driving force.
“It was the result of the conversation with the bus company that we ended up moving forward with the charges,” he said.
Chenot, seeing the gray area, offered Keener ARD, a probationary program designed to allow a defendant to eventually wipe their record clean. But Engle said he is worried that might jeopardize her job as a nurse with the Pinnacle Health System. Plus, he said, she doesn’t think she did anything wrong.
So the case will probably go before a jury.
Parents try to board school buses all the time. Almost none of them know that there’s a law against it. But most parents also get off the bus once the driver tells them it’s illegal and those parents aren’t charged. It was because Keener ignored that request that she was reported.
“I’m a mom too, I have three kids. Whose to say how any one of us would react in a situation where we thought our kids were in danger?” Schaeffer said. “... If we have one parent clearly let off the hook, for lack of a better word, how does the next parent not say ... I’ll just give a good reason? Where do you draw the line?”
At the preliminary hearing, bus driver Melissa Wright testified that she had asked two older children — in third and fourth grades — to wake Xander when they got to the stop on Greenbriar Road.
Before anyone had time to act, Keener had raced onto the bus, she said.
Xander had fallen asleep before, and Wright testified, “I didn’t have any thing to think that there was a medical emergency.”
Wright denies the other kids were yelling, ‘help,’ but says Keener had a foul-mouthed exchange with the driver as she took her son from the bus.
Keener denies using profanity.
The next day Keener called Schaeffer and unsuccessfully lobbied for Wright to be fired. She was upset that the driver didn’t act quickly enough. The bus company said she never had the chance.
“Mrs. Keener just did not give the driver the time she needed to take care of the situation,” Schaeffer said. “According to our driver it happened, like seconds. We train the drivers in how to handle a situation. Not all are CPR certified, but this driver is a (certified nurse assistant), certified in CPR and works with patients daily at another job. She has been doing that for several years.”
One thing is agreed: Keener didn’t touch any other kids, or do anything besides wake Xander.
And no one disputes that Keener really believed her son could be in danger.
That’s why Engle says the charge just doesn’t make sense. Don’t we all wish for hindsight, he asks.
“I’m not budging,” Engle said. “I think the bus company is driving this, no pun intended and I think they’re overreaching. I just don’t seen 12 people convicting this woman.”