NewsChannel 7 Investigates | State Patrol: Decade after Plainfield school bus crash, half of state’s operators implementing back seat rules

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PLAINFIELD, Wis. (WSAW) – It's been a decade since 14-year-old Tri-County High School student David Senft Jr. was killed. Senft was killed following a semi-truck driver crashing into the back of his school bus near Plainfield, Wis.

Since then, half of Wisconsin’s school bus operators have rules requiring students not sit in the last two seating rows, unless a school bus is full, according to the head of the state’s school bus inspection program.

"About 50 percent of all school buses operating in the state of Wisconsin currently do have lettering across the top bulkhead that reads something similar to, "Do not sit in back seats unless bus is full," Wisconsin State Patrol Lt. Karl Mittelstadt said.

A Wisconsin State Patrol memo, obtained by NewsChannel 7 Investigates, shows just one month after the eighth grader’s March 2006 death, the State Patrol changed their rules allowing school bus operators, who have rules about not allowing students to sit in the crumple zone, to place reminder signs on its rear bulkhead.

“So it appears as time goes on more and more carriers are adopting this policy,” Mittelstadt said. “I have personally been doing a lot of talks with the Wisconsin School Bus Association, throughout Wisconsin also educating them on the possibility of putting this wording. And explaining to them and the ramifications if a school bus is in a rear impact crash, someone could be injured.”

Because there is no law requiring the seating rule, there is no computer database tracking how many districts have implemented their own policies.

However, Mittelstadt said they estimate half of all Wisconsin districts implementing their own policies is based on his division’s inspectors observing the signs during the mandatory school bus safety checks they perform.

“The suggestion is to not allow or to keep students out of the back two seats of school buses, if at all possible, if it’s not filled to capacity,” Mittelstadt said.

Senft Jr.’s mother, Julie Senft, worked with lawmakers in a failed attempt to transform that suggestion into a state law named after her son during the 2009-2010 legislative session. However, “David’s Law,” as the bill became known, never made it to a vote.

"It's very frustrating. It's frustrating,” Julie Senft said. “It's bothersome as to how can we not put our kid's safety first."

That March 2006 day, Senft Jr.’s Tri-County school bus driver had stopped along a highway near Plainfield to let one of the 12 students on board off at her home. That is when State Patrol calculations show the semi’s driver Barry Jacobson speeding at 63 miles per hour when he crashed into the back of the bus.

Six other students were hurt in the crash. When Jacobson woke up from his coma, he said he could not remember why he did not swerve or slow down before crashing.

Current chair of the Wisconsin Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, said since the bill was introduced late during the 2009-2010 session, there was not enough time for lawmakers to figure out lingering concerns, such as already busy bus drivers having added responsibilities.

"A lot of schools are having that as a school policy now,” Petrowski said. “And I believe there are signs saying sit other than the last two rows."

For the first time this school year, the 2,000 students who ride the bus in Rhinelander will see those signs on the last two rows of their buses, thanks to another State Patrol rule change allowing bus operators to also place the reminders on seat backs.

"I was ready to jump up and down, when the state told us they had approved putting the signs on the seats," Bowen’s Bus Service Manager Kim Weyers said. "I'd like to hope that it wouldn't have to be a law. The big companies out there would take it up themselves to implement as a company policy."

Despite some local progress, ten years after losing her son, Senft hopes the painful pictures reminding the community of David’s story inspire every Wiscosnin school district to adopt their own form of David's Law. And, at the very least, for all parents to make sure their child knows what happened.

“Tell your children, don't sit in the back two seats, on the just in case,” Senft said. “And maybe it never happens again, I hope not. Because there's no way another parent should have to go through this.”

Outside of Rhinelander, NewsChannel 7 Investigates independently verified operator’s seating rules in Wausau, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids.

It is also policy for all three communities’ operators to ensure the back two rows of school buses remain vacant, unless the bus is full.

Managers with First Student and Lamers, who provide service for Wausau and Wisconsin Rapids said they are likely to place signs on the back of bus seats.

However, Stevens Point Area Public School District operates their own bus system. The district’s Transportation Manager Brad Carriveau told NewsChannel 7 Investigates while their bus drivers enforce the seating policy, they do not place signs because of the expense.

An Adams County judge dismissed Barry T. Jacobson of Mineral Point's homicide charge.

Jacobson pleaded no contest in 2008 to eight charges: homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and seven misdemeanor counts of reckless driving causing bodily harm.

He was sentenced to three years probation for the misdemeanors.
Senft said Jacobson has never apologized to the family. Jacobson's attorney did not return NewsChannel 7 Investigates request for comment.

This is the first part of a two-part series on school bus safety. Part two will examine the debate over school bus seat belts, Thursday night on NewsChannel 7 at 10.