James Kraemer’s new Facebook page “School Bus Drivers Killed In The Line of Duty” features celebrated figures such as slain Alabama school bus driver Charles Poland, who was shot on his bus last year, and recent victims like Tala Lealao-Taiao, 53, who died in a fiery motorcoach crash in northern California last month.
Lealao-Taiao, the mother of twins, was killed along with three other adults and five students on her coach when a FedEx semi-truck hit them head-on while they were en route to Humboldt State University. The veteran driver won honors for her driving record and was also selected to drive the Jamaican bobsled team's bus in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Her children said she will always be remembered as a hero.
Kraemer told STN he got the idea for the new memorial page after visiting a police department’s website with a section honoring lost police officers who had been "killed in the line of duty." When he could not find anything similar for school bus drivers, he wondered why that was and then decided to take action.
“I visit law enforcement forums on occasion because their work, including job-related stress, is similar to the issues school bus drivers’ experience. I noticed police often have a memorial area for their fallen police officers, and found it odd that we do not seem to have that in our industry,” explained Kraemer, who drove a school bus at Lebanon (Ore.) Community Schools for more than two decades. He then worked as a safety officer, serving mostly as a consultant along with holding the unique position of “school bus ombudsman,” which gave him the authority to remove unruly children from buses.
“I was hated by the hostile, but the civil sure liked me,” Kraemer added. “I officially retired almost three years ago today. I stayed on so long because my employer took exceptional care of his school bus drivers. They understand the stresses of the job.”
Few understand the challenges school bus drivers nationwide face every day, Kraemer continued, a notion reinforced by his experience as well as the abundant research effort he undertook in developing the “Line of Duty” website.
On it, visitors can remember much-lauded drivers like Poland, who died protecting the children in his care when a mentally troubled gunman boarded the bus to take hostages. A half-mile stretch of Highway 231 in Midland City, Ala., was renamed the Charles Chuck Albert Poland Junior Memorial Highway just before the one-year anniversary of his death in January. Also, an Alabama law passed last year ad named the Charles “Chuck” Poland Jr., Act made trespassing on a yellow bus a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
And the Facebook page spotlights a hero from another decade: Ed Ray, the Chowchilla, Calif., bus driver who helped free 26 students in the infamous 1976 kidnapping. Before he died at age 91, he was visited by many of the now-grown children he saved from harm.
Also there are many, many school bus drivers whose deaths may not have captured national attention but still hit their families and communities very hard.
Florida State University High School bus driver William Fowler was killed by an allegedly drunk driver in an April 18 crash. Harold Rosenwinkel, 78, of Willow Grove, Ill., died Oct. 24 after suffering a medical episode while driving his empty school bus. Two years ago Bronx school bus driver Juan Del Valle, 65, was killed by an irate motorist who attacked him because the bus hit his double-parked car. In 2005, Joyce Gregory, 47, was fatally shot by a teenage student onboard her Stewart County school bus in Dover, Tenn.
This list goes on and on … and on. Kraemer said he wants student transporters, school officials and anyone aware of victims to add more stories that need to be told to the Facebook site, and in this way, assume ownership of a page designed to raise awareness and deepen respect for bus drivers everywhere.
“The page is growing by word of mouth. Anyone can add information to the page, including posting the loss and also the achievements of deceased school bus drivers they held precious in their lives. Charter/commercial bus drivers that transported schoolchildren on trips are also encouraged to post,” added Kraemer.
"They put their lives on the line for other people like police officers, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. There is a certain sort who will do whatever they have to do to protect those kids — acting like Mama Bear — making that sudden decision to intervene, no matter what."