By James Cook, Times Editor
Usually a police escort after coming home from an athletic event is fun, but when police are waiting for the bus at the school then there may be a problem. What should have been a slow, uneventful bus ride for the Powell County Cross Country Team last Saturday, turned into a fast, scary, white knuckle experience. That experience was brought on by what police say was a bus driver who was under the influence, possibly from medications.
Police arrested Jesse L. Patrick, Jr., 40 of Stanton, and charged him with driving while under the influence and 15 counts of wanton endangerment. The arrest citation has the word drugs circled in the section that asks if alcohol or drugs were involved. The wanton endangerment counts cover the 14 student-athletes and the coach who were on the bus during the ordeal. According to the police report, Patrick failed the field sobriety tests and admitted to taking a loritab before leaving the school Saturday morning and a xanax the night before.
According to Coach Michael Coleman the situation began on the way to the cross country meet known as the Beast of the East, which was being held in Owsley County. “On the way down, it looked like he dozed off and we hit a guardrail,” Coleman said. “But the guardrail had already been hit and was kind of protruding out toward the road some, so when I asked him if he was OK and he said he was a little tired I thought that was possible because we left early. The ride there was otherwise not so bad. But the ride back was frightening.”
After the meet the trip back to Powell County was a nightmare, as it was described by those on the bus and parents who were following them. “He was all over the road, closing his eyes. I believed he dozed off at least three times,” Coleman said. “I kept trying to talk to him to tell him you don’t do this with kids on the bus and to try to keep him awake. He kept saying he was alright, but he was going too fast and was all over the road. I finally had Donovan call the police, I knew he had some of their numbers in his cell phone.”
Two of the team members, who spoke with the Times with parental approval, also told of the fear everyone on the bus had as the driver just kept going faster. “I know we hit a guardrail on the way down and I know we grazed a sign on the way back,” team member Donovan Nolan said as police were speaking to Patrick at the school.
“As we were coming back on Highway 11 he crossed the line several times and was just picking up speed as he was going downhill,” another team member Austin Monnett added. “We almost hit the guardrail on the other side of the road in a curve.”
A parent who traveled with the team and asked not to be identified said it was scary for everyone. “He was driving so fast and all over the road. We got a parent to pull in front of him to see if that would slow him down, but he just passed them,” the concerned parent said. “You could see the fear on the kids faces. We were all afraid and glad now that no one got hurt.”
Powell Superintendent Evelyn Neely wasted very little time to take action. “He will be suspended pending further investigation, without pay,” Neely said in an interview on Monday after having the weekend to sort through the situation. “Our number one goal is to keep kids safe and if any one, especially those in the system think there is something we need to look at to keep kids safe, then run it up the flag pole and say ‘Ms. Neely, Ms. Neely’ and let’s take care of it.”
This is not the first incident for Patrick on a Powell County School bus this year, who was hired just this past summer and went through the training, drug testing and criminal background checks required before being hired. On the second day of school Patrick’s bus struck a vehicle that was sitting on the side of the road on Virden Ridge. Apparently the car had been left there after possibly breaking down. Patrick reportedly tried to avoid an oncoming car and hit the vehicle, breaking a tail light. A police report was filed, but no drug testing was conducted. Patrick was placed on a different route the next day.
“At the time it was a very minor accident and I call it that because there really is no other word to call it,” Neely said. “Police came out, did a report, Earnie (Smallwood) went out and looked at it and it just did not seem to be the kind of accident where testing was needed.” As for the change of routes, Neely added, “That was something that had been discussed days before and it had nothing to do with this incident. I told Earnie afterward, we had already made the decision, this happens and it looks like we did it for this reason. But it had already been decided.”
As for the drug testing issue, Neely said the system has random testing conducted by a firm from Lexington each month. “There is a KRS (Kentucky Revised Statute) that deals with drug tests and when you do and don’t do them,” Neely said. “But we will be meeting with the drivers this week and our policy will be changing. I don’t want to be in a position like this again.”
According to Smallwood, the accident on Aug. 6 was minor. “I went out there to take a look, the truck was sitting on the side of the road, no one was in it, it was not moving and the rear tire of the bus hit the tail light,” he said, reflecting back on Patrick’s earlier incident. “In hind sight you think maybe if we had done one (drug test) maybe this may not have happened. But given the same circumstances, I don’t think I would have done anything different.”
The school systems policy on post accident drug testing is based on a federal guideline established “a few years ago,” Smallwood told the Times. Based on that guideline, drug testing would be mandatory after an accident if there were a fatality, doily injury to anyone or if there were “disabling damage” to a vehicle involved and it had to be towed away. “We’ve been known to have testing done even if there were no injuries or disabling damage, but if both vehicles were moving, just to be on the safe side,” Smallwood said. “Our biggest concern is the safety of the kids. It is like that in everything we do.”
Smallwood also said that Patrick had attended a training session in June in which all drivers were advised that if they took any types of medication they were to notify him. “If they take any prescription, over the counter medicines, even Benadryl, anything that makes them drowsy or can make them drowsy, they are to tell me. If it is going to affect you driving, don’t drive,” Smallwood said. “He (Patrick) never informed me he was taking any medications.”
As for those on the bus, do not tell them about separation of church and state. “I prayed all the way back,” Colman said. “It was God that got us home.”
Patrick was lodged in the Powell County Detention Center under a $50,000 cash bond.