Details slim on SoCo school bus probe

Published 8:39 am Wednesday, February 11, 2009

COURTLAND—Officials with Southampton County Schools say their investigation into last month’s accidental death of a 4-year-old boy at Riverdale Elementary School is over, and that their findings are identical to those of a separate investigation by the county sheriff’s office.

Meanwhile, details surrounding a decision to have two employees of the school division’s central office assume a greater role in the administration of Riverdale remained secret.

About 38 minutes into Monday night’s school board meeting, Superintendent Charles Turner read a statement that said the board had reviewed last week’s report by investigators with the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office.

“That report is entirely consistent with the conclusions we reached as a result of our own internal investigation into the incident,” Turner said. “We want the board and the public to know that we have taken steps to ensure that this tragedy will not occur again in the future.”

During a break in the meeting, Turner confirmed that the “steps” were outlined in a Jan. 29 letter he sent to Riverdale parents — specifically that starting Feb. 4, students would be unloaded from their buses every morning directly in front of the entryway at the curb, one bus at a time.

When asked if the new unloading policy at Riverdale was going to be enforced at all schools in the division, Turner said, “We’re consistent throughout the county.”

Turner confirmed that the board’s investigation into the accident had concluded.

On Jan. 9, Jameer Khamarie Woodley, a pre-kindergarten student, had just stepped off of a school bus and was walking across the travel lane of the parking lot behind Riverdale when he was struck by another bus. He died at the scene. The investigation by the sheriff’s office revealed that the driver of the school bus did not see Jameer.

Turner declined to answer questions about the bus driver involved in the accident, who is back to work.

“I’m not going to go there,” he said.

Turner also refused to elaborate on his decision to send Dr. Timothy Kelly, the division’s assistant superintendent, to Riverdale for the remainder of the school year — a decision that he announced in the Jan. 29 letter to Riverdale parents. Turner said Kelly would “be in charge of the overall administrative leadership at Riverdale.”

When asked what “overall administrative leadership” meant, Turner said, “It means exactly what it says in the letter. That’s something that assistant superintendents do anyway. Dr. Kelly serves at our pleasure. As superintendent, I can provide as much administrative support as I choose for my staff.”

In the Jan. 29 letter, Turner also said Rodney Brown, the coordinator of instructional services for the division, would also be “on-site and provide day-to-day administrative leadership and support to the current administrative team” at Riverdale.

Turner said that “team” includes Andrea Ellis and Tracy Stith-Johnson, the school’s principal and assistant principal, respectively.

Turner would not say if Ellis had requested additional assistance from the central office.

“I don’t have to get into who asked for what as far as support is concerned,” Turner said. “I don’t have to get into that. I’m superintendent. I make those decisions.”

Wayne Smith, the director of administration for the division, declined to comment on why he told The Tidewater News on Feb. 3 that no one from the division’s central office would be assuming a greater role in the administration of Riverdale.

Ellis was not at Monday’s meeting but did make comments about the incident for the February edition of the school newsletter “Riverdale Review,” which was distributed to the school board.

“January was a very difficult month for our school family,” Ellis said. “The staff, students and I acknowledge with grateful appreciation the kindness we’ve been shown by others. The support and many acts of kindness received from the central office, the school board members, our school PTA, other county schools and our school families were overwhelming.”

She added, “The flowers, cards and calls received from business groups, other school systems, local churches and friends in the community showed us that everyone truly shared in our grief.”