Family, friends remember teen who was killed at school bus stop

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 3, 2013

On Oct. 17 Makinzy Smith did what he always did on school days — he left the front porch light on signaling to the bus driver he’d be riding that day. The 17-year-old never made it to West Rowan High School, where he was a junior. In fact, the teenager never made it to the bus.

He was struck and killed around 6:30 a.m. while crossing Woodleaf Road in front of his grandparents’ home.

Barbara Harrison Smith, 57, was charged with passing a stopped school bus — a felony. Smith declined an interview for this story. Barbara Smith and Makinzy Smith are not related.

The day Makinzy was killed, 15-year-old Jasmine Shaver was among the 20 students aboard the bus who witnessed the tragic accident.

Her parents said she struggled with the death of her friend, whom she’s known since her freshman year. Jasmine is now a 10th grader at West Rowan High School.

Jasmine, who periodically sees a therapist, scheduled a session with that counselor the day of her friend’s death. She was angry, her mother, Tammy said.

“It wasn’t easy to sit and watch her go through it,” Tammy said.

Jasmine said she met Makinzy as a freshman when he kept others from bullying her, something that had been happening since elementary school.

The friends ate lunch together along with a group of other students and sat near each other on the bus.

Jasmine recalled when it came to the bus ride, it was “constant laughter,” with Makinzy.

She has since had time to process losing a classmate, saying she’s come to terms with the fact he’s gone.

“We miss him,” she said simply.

Highway Patrol officials have released a collision report that says Barbara Smith was traveling 50 mph in a 55 mph posted speed zone. The report says test results are pending for alcohol and drugs.

Smith was not believed to have been impaired and has not been charged with driving while impaired.

Jasmine, like Makinzy’s family, still wonders if Barbara Smith was distracted and “how she didn’t see the bright lights” of the school bus, she said.

The school bus driver had come to a complete stop, extended the stop arm and the red lights were flashing, troopers and school officials said.

Jasmine’s father, William “Rusty” Shaver, had been a bus driver for a number of years with Rowan-Salisbury School System and Davie County schools.

Rusty said he’d long since taught his children about bus safety including safe crossing, but witnessing the death of a friend has made Jasmine even more cautious of crossing the street.

“I know it’s dark. I get on quick,” she said.

The accident has made Tammy worry more, she admits.

“Those drivers need to start paying attention,” she said.

Officials have not said if inattention contributed to the crash. A Highway Patrol official told a Post reporter Friday a detailed report was not yet available.

Rusty Shaver said when he was a driver for Rowan County, his route included the very same route where Makinzy was killed.

Shaver said bus drivers undergo rigorous training prior to getting behind the wheel that includes eye exams, physicals, road and bus knowledge and then there are road tests on a bus with no students.

As a bus driver, you develop a rapport with students, he said.

“When you look behind you, that’s somebody’s baby and you’re responsible for them. I feel like that is my kid back there. In a way, everyone of them is mine,” he said.

When he drove a bus route, Shaver said, he would often pull the bus across the yellow line, partially blocking traffic if it meant a vehicle could not pass the bus. Blocking the road was not a school system mandate, nor was it a state requirement, he said, just something he did to protect the students.

A protector of others, peace-loving and loyal are what friends and family say were virtues Makinzy shared with one of his favorite video game characters, Guan Yu, who is based on a Chinese historical figure.

Friend Cody Hannold often spent weekends hanging out with Makinzy and their mutual friend, Max, playing video games or “throwing the football.”

“We were basically brothers,” he said.

In a time when teenagers were rarely polite, Makinzy was respectful, he said.

“He was a good friend to whoever he met. He enjoyed talking to people,” Cody said.

The day after Makinzy’s death, Cody said, felt like a dream, one from which he wished he could awaken.

Nearly two weeks after his friend’s death, Cody said, life feels different without Makinzy in it.

Of the people who did not know Makinzy, he said, “they missed out on a great guy.”

Cody and his parents, Greg and Janella, are creating a memorial garden at their Salisbury home. The garden will feature a peach tree, which was inspired by Makinzy’s interest in Guan Yu.

Before Makinzy Smith’s death, the Rowan-Salisbury School System was already working with state officials to bring awareness to stop arm violations.

In October 2011, Rowan County was one of five school districts in the state that participated in a pilot program funded by the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. The program was designed to test stop arm video camera systems that were mounted onto school buses.

The cameras would determine how many motorists ignored the stop arm of a school bus in a given period. The cameras would also provide evidence for law enforcement and prosecutors to make a case against the driver who violated the law.

The state contracted with Fortress Mobile, a Charlotte-based company that provided the camera systems. Two Rowan buses are equipped with three interior cameras and three exterior cameras. One bus had an additional exterior camera.

There are three external cameras mounted to the buses — two on the left side and one on the right side. The video systems are able to capture a motorist who passes an oncoming bus including a picture of the vehicle, the driver and the license plate.

The school system has 193 buses that transport more than 10,500 students, resulting in 14,000 school bus stops per day.

The school system connected with bus drivers and coordinators to determine which areas were high-risk for stop arm violators. Those high-risk areas included Spencer, Salisbury and Rockwell.

There were 45 citations issued in Rowan County for motorists who passed a stopped school bus from October 2011 to October 2013. Of those 45 citations issued during the two-year period, 43 people were convicted of stop arm violations and three people have appealed those convictions.

School system Transportation Director Judy Burris said the last violation for the 2012-2013 school year was May 16 and there have since been no violations in those same high-risk areas. Buses with cameras were moved to other potentially high-risk areas just last week and no data is available.

“There’s a lot people passing school buses and that’s pretty alarming,” said school spokeswoman Rita Foil.

The key to changing the number both women say is making the public aware of the laws and the consequences that can result if those laws are violated.

Burris said she also feels as though bus safety education should not stop at the elementary school level, but there should be school-wide programs in high schools similar to known Prom Promise drunk driving demonstrations.

“As transportation director, my main priority is to provide safe transportation to and from school,” Burris said.

“There’s nothing more tragic that could ever happen than losing one of our children,” Burris said.

All bus drivers are trained to review safety measures with students, Burris said.

The bus drivers alert the transportation coordinators to unsafe routes, changes are reviewed and routes adjusted.

Parents can also alert the transportation department about routes they deem unsafe, she said.

There are different boarding and unloading practices for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Many elementary school students board the bus on the “home” side of the road rather than cross the street.

The stop where Makinzy was killed was identified as a stop that was very visible, had the proper posted signs and was “well beyond state requirements,” Burris said.

She said there is no county in North Carolina that has all door-side stops.

Many things factor into buses being able to let students exit and enter in front of their home including the number of buses making stops and funding.

“It would probably take double the drivers and buses,” Burris said in order to board the bus in front of a home.

The school system is allotted a certain number of buses, many of which are shared among multiple schools.

Burris said the biggest challenge is finding funding sources that will put cameras onto more buses. She is working with law enforcement agencies so together they can work to obtain grants to pay for cameras.

Each year around this time, the N.C. Highway Patrol conducts its Operation Stop Arm campaign. The campaign began Oct. 21, three days after Makinzy Smith was struck and killed. The campaign ended Oct. 25 with troopers issuing 5,362 traffic, safety violations in and around schools statewide.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association, in an average year, 24 children are killed in school bus accidents with very few of them occurring on the bus.

There were 162 traffic and criminal violations in Rowan County during this campaign, of which two people were cited for passing a stopped school bus.

To report a stop arm violation, contact your local law enforcement agency.