BY KEN LITTLE
No charges will be filed by the Tennessee Highway Patrol in connection with the April 12 accident involving a Greene County Schools bus that killed 12-year-old Austin Lee Baughard, a THP spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Baughard, a seventh-grader at Chuckey-Doak Middle School, was run over in front of his Holder Road home as the bus began its morning rounds.
It was still dark when the bus struck the boy. Baughard had been suspended from riding the bus the week the incident occurred, school system officials said.
Ronnie Whitson, 63, the driver of the bus, continues to work for the school system in a non-driving capacity and could resume driving a bus, Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk said today.
"The investigation into the April 12 fatal bus crash in Greene County is closed. After consultation with the district attorney's office, no charges will be filed," THP spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said.
Third Judicial District Attorney General Berkeley Bell said Tuesday the case will still be reviewed in "the near future" by a Greene County grand jury.
"The [THP is] not going to file any charges, but we will submit the action to the grand jury for further determination," Bell said.
"There was a death involved. That's the conclusion of the Highway Patrol -- that charges aren't warranted."
All violent death investigations go before a grand jury as a matter of procedure, Bell said.
"There will be an opportunity to present more evidence if somebody wants to come forward," he said.
"I expect the [THP closing the investigation] will be the determining factor, but it gives them the opportunity to kind of look over our shoulder."
Dr. Kirk was not aware of the THP decision to close the investigation when she was contacted by The Greeneville Sun.
"From the beginning, they have told me they did not anticipate charges, so I am not surprised by this outcome," she said. "While we are very glad there are no charges, it remains a very sad event for all of us."
Whitson has been working as a custodian while the investigation was conducted, but he retains his commercial driver's license, Kirk said.
No decision has been made about Whitson's driving school buses again. A decision will be made based on his "readiness," she said.
DETAILS OF INCIDENT
Baughard's 16-year-old sister, Amber, was the only student on the bus at the time her brother was struck by the bus, according to a THP report.
In order to board the school bus, the siblings had to cross the road at the front end of the bus and come around to the doorway.
Austin Baughard had been suspended from riding the bus from Monday, April 9, through Friday, April 13, according to the THP.
A trooper's report said that, after Amber Baughard boarded the bus, Whitson "watched her in the mirror go toward the back of the bus."
Before taking her seat, the report said Amber Baughard told Whitson to wait. She told the driver, "My brother is coming."
Whitson began to drive away and "thought he hit a dog, then backed back up to find the pedestrian," the report said.
As part of the investigation after the incident, the bus was taken to the THP weigh station on Interstate 81 and inspected.
The report said that alcohol and drugs were not an apparent factor in the incident. Toxicology test results on Whitson did not indicate otherwise, or charges likely would have been filed.
All school district bus drivers met in May with the THP about safety issues. The THP coordinated with school officials to hold additional safety training sessions, Dr. Kirk said after the fatality.
Kirk also emphasized "the need for continued communication about bus safety" at the time.
Bus safety remains a focus in the school system, she said. A member of the THP will speak to school system principals later this month.
"We will keep this at the forefront. It's a very important issue. It always has been," she said.
"We are working on ways to make sure students understand they have to follow the safety rules."