Perry County mother charged with unlawfully entering school bus to help a son she thought was ill
Published: Saturday, July 23, 2011, 12:00 AM By SARA GANIM, The Patriot-News The Patriot-News
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."
My Review- By Attorney Jeffrey B. Engle
I've been reviewing some of the comments posted on 'Pennlive' by concerned citizens and other parents that are expressing their outrage about this case. Some of you have stated that all of the facts are not known, therefore, we shouldn't be too hasty in judging what the DA or the bus company has done. I agree. It's a news article. We all have our own opinions about how we would react to the situation were we in it at that time. I thank Sara Ganim for her objective reporting. She is a good reporter. But some of the facts were missed or not listed in the order that an attorney would prefer. So, I've decided to go one step further than the news and list the FACTS:
1) The child, Xander, age 5, has a speech disorder for which he has an IEP. There is a family history of hypoglycemia and diabetes;
2) Tara Keener is a Registered Nurse in an ER;
3) No one at Dum's Bus Service had ever reported to her that he had fallen asleep on the bus before, despite Melissa Wright, the driver, testifying that this had occurred on her bus in the past;
4) Tara and her husband, Tom, had boarded the bus on past occassions, without complaint, because they were part of the 'Lift' program which aids younger children with IEP's to assist them in the new environment;
5) Tara saw two students at her son's assigned seat on the day in question. As she walked down her 100 yard driveway, the door opened, those same two students both yelled, "he's not moving...we cannot wake him up!" Melissa Wright yelled "Xander!" twice, with no response. Ms. Wright testified at a June hearing that she was unsure if he had a medical emergency. She did not know.
6) Whether or not there was an actual medical emergency is irrelevant. It is what either of the adults at the scene- Mrs. Keener or Ms. Wright believed or thought to be true. The 'justification defense' in PA permits one to violate a crimes code if the danger sought to be avoided is greater than the harm sought to be prohibited.
7) The bus doors were open when Mrs. Keener boarded the bus. She did not pry her way in or damage the doors in any fashion. She is not 5'4" or weigh 245 lbs. She is a professional in an ER and anyone would feel comfortable having her assist them in that regard.
8) The incident which gives rise to the charge occurred on December 15, 2010. The criminal complaint was filed on April 2, 2011. 4 MONTHS AFTER THE ALLEGED INCIDENT OCCURRED.
9) The DA has stated to me, in a phone call, that he was being pushed by Dum's Transportation Service. Dums, according to Ms. Schaeffer, is shocked that charges were filed. There is a disconnect.
10) The DA has offered Mrs. Keener ARD. This is a pre-trial diversionary program that will allow her to complete a probationary sentence, pay fines and court costs and have her criminal record expunged. My client has refused this program and I support her. She did nothing wrong. Any probationary sentence or payment of fines and costs is tantamount to an admission of liability, for which, she has none.
Whatever the result, I hope that justice is served. A pre-trial motion seeking dismissal of the charge has been filed. A hearing is scheduled for August 30, 2011 at the Perry County Courthouse. I invite those who feel strongly about this case to attend and support Mrs. Tara Keener.