The school bus driver trainee facing a second-degree vehicular homicide charge in the wreck that killed a Temple High School student was sentenced to a year of probation and a $600 fine Tuesday after pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
Kenneth Ross Herringdine, 60, of Roopville pleaded guilty to failure to maintain a lane as part of negotiated plea in connection with the Oct. 4 wreck. A message left with Herringdine’s lawyer, Tommy Greer, wasn’t immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.
James Rashawn “Ray Ray” Walker, 17, of Temple died when the bus overturned on Highway 113 near Sharp Creek Elementary School.
According to the accident report, Herringdine indicated he looked down and when he looked back up, the vehicle was going off the road. He also indicated that he applied the brake and tried to get the vehicle back onto the road but overcorrected. The bus then struck a culvert and overturned.
The bus was carrying 15 students, many of whom were vocational students at Temple High.
Georgia State Patrol had turned its report on the accident over to the Carroll County Solicitor’s Office for review three months ago. The report, which is several hundred pages long, was completed by the Forsyth-based Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team.
After reviewing the report, Carroll County Solicitor Doug Vassy decided not to prosecute on the vehicular homicide charge but to negotiate a plea for failure to maintain a lane. The plea won’t suspend Herringdine’s driver license. Vassy noted after Tuesday afternoon’s court proceedings that Herringdine has driven buses for many years and has no criminal record or negative marks on his driving record.
“I feel like he made a mistake,” Vassy said.
He said the report showed that the wreck occurred when the rear tire of the bus left the road.
“At that particular location there is a very steep dropoff,” Vassy said. “It would have been very difficult for anybody to have gotten that vehicle back on the road once the tire went off the road. I felt like the road played a significant contributing factor in the wreck itself. I also took into consideration there was no evidence of any speeding.”
While some people indicated after the wreck that they thought Herringdine was an unsafe driver, Vassy wasn’t aware of the Carroll County Schools Transportation Department receiving any negative report about his driving prior to the incident. He also noted that three days before the wreck Sheri Davis of Temple, who was the driver trainer on the bus, gave Herringdine a good report, indicating he didn’t need additional training.
“He passed a check by [the] head of training at the school system that morning,” Vassy said. “She certainly didn’t see any reason he would be unsafe to drive people.”
He acknowledged that witnesses indicated Herringdine looked tired and was yawning while driving. But he said nothing appeared to be wrong until the tires left the road. Tests showed that Herringdine had antihistamines in his system.
“It was a trace amount and did not in my mind contribute to anything in this accident,” Vassy said.
Earlier the day of the fatal crash, the report indicated Herringdine had hit a dog the morning of the wreck.
“If he swerved to miss the dog, he probably would have flipped the bus,” Vassy said.
He stressed that he took the investigation “very seriously.”
“These are very difficult cases when you’re trying to decide what to charge somebody with,” Vassy said. “I didn’t feel it rose to the level of criminal intent to charge him with vehicular homicide in the second degree.”
GSP spokesman Gordy Wright said previously that Herringdine didn’t have the endorsement needed on his commercial driver’s license to operate a school bus at the time of the wreck.
Wright said his license showed a “P” for passenger endorsement, but not an “S” for school bus endorsement. Both endorsements need to be on the license in order to operate a school bus.
Herringdine and Davis were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the crash investigation.
County school system spokeswoman Elena Schulenburg said that Herringdine has not driven a bus since the accident and is employed by the school system as a custodian.
“It was just a tragic accident,” Vassy said. “I felt it didn’t rise to the level of a vehicular homicide in the second degree. I thought it was a just outcome as far as Mr. Herringdine is concerned. Mr. Herringdine is very remorseful about this particular matter.”
He then referenced a statement Herringdine made in court about wishing it had been him and not Walker.
Walker’s parents, Diana Lockett and Antonio Walker, have obtained attorney B.J. Bernstein, who is representing the family in a civil lawsuit.
“We are extremely disappointed by today’s proceedings in which Mr. Herringdine pled guilty only to failure to maintain a lane,” Bernstein said. “The family is very upset that Mr. Herringdine was not also prosecuted for vehicular homicide in the second degree. … Ray Ray’s family is concerned for the safety of other children in Carroll County, and as we’ve seen with the CRCT cheating scandal, sometimes school systems try to hide their mistakes rather than admit to the truth.”
She and the family only learned of the plea deal just before Herringdine’s arraignment.
“The solicitor invited the family and myself to meet with him about two months ago to give input and the solicitor’s office notified the family today there would be arraignment,” Bernstein said. “However, until l got into the courtroom, we didn’t know there was a plea was already negotiated.”
Although an agreement has been made in the criminal proceedings, she and the family still have a lot of questions. Those questions include how the wreck happened and what actions were taken afterward.
“We got to look at the report,” Bernstein said. “We really want to know what happened. The report released before indicated previous problems with this driver. Now you have a situation where he’s getting probation and a $600 fine for failure to maintain lane that would not suspend his license. There’s not really any repercussions here.”
She also has questions about the training Herringdine received and his driving record with the school system.
“The family doesn’t want to rely on rumor,” Bernstein said. “They want to know.”
Vassy acknowledged meeting with the family.
“I met with them several weeks ago and discussed this whole thing,” Vassy said. “They wanted me to prosecute him for vehicular homicide but I chose not to do that.”
Lockett said she is “outraged” with the the outcome of the case.
“I at least thought he was going to lose his license,” she said.
Lockett feels Vassy did a poor job in making his determination and that he spoke too highly of Herringdine during the court proceeding.
“He just spoke about how much of an outstanding citizen Kenneth Herringdine was,” she said. “I don’t think he even cared about my feelings or his [Walker’s] father’s feelings. I think he was more concerned about Kenneth Herringdine.”
She also expressed concern about Herringdine being able to keep his license.
“I guess Carroll County won’t be happy until he kills somebody else’s child because he’s gotten away with killing my baby,” Lockett said. “I am hurting. My life has stopped and everybody else’s life has went on. My life is at a standstill. My child is gone. I’ll never see my son again.”
She described Walker as a “wonderful, loving person.”
“He never met a stranger,” Lockett said.
Doni Harper’s daughter, 16-year-old Brittany Harper, was also injured in the bus wreck and was friends with Walker. Doni Harper went to court Tuesday. Like the Walker family, she was disappointed.
“I think it’s absurd,” Harper said. “I just think it’s ridiculous with the charge he has now, he’s able to keep his CDL. … I personally think he should have been charged with injuring every child that was injured on that bus.”
Her daughter suffered from a “small brain bleed” and had her lower jaw broken in two places. She explained that Brittany was knocked out during the crash and actually woke up on Ray Ray’s leg.
“She’s very upset because Ray Ray was one of her good friends,” Harper said. She has post-traumatic stress disorder from this. I don’t think Mr. Herringdine really understands what he’s done to these kids. A lot of these kids are seeing therapists or on medication now and that’s why I feel like we got no satisfaction from what happened today. My daughter will have to live with this for the rest of her life.”
She described the way the court proceedings were handled as being “like a sneak attack” and feels Herringdine “has gotten off way too easy.” While he apologized in court, she has not yet forgiven him.
“I’m still working on that because I’m still angry at him because of what my daughter has to go through,” Harper said. “I’m just not ready to totally forgive him, but I am working on it.”