published Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Driver not faulted in child’s bus death at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School

Emergency personnel work the scene where a student was struck and killed in front of Chattanooga Valley Elementary School on Monday.
Emergency personnel work the scene where a student was struck and killed in front of Chattanooga Valley Elementary School on Monday.
Photo by Dan Henry.
  • photo
    Site where a child was fatally struck by a bus at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School.
    Illustration by Laura McNutt.

Nobody knows why 6-year-old Zackery Bryant walked in front of the bus.

There is a routine, school officials say. It’s practiced at the beginning of every year until students understand what to do when their driver drops them off. They walk forward, straight toward the building.

But, for some reason, Zackery immediately turned left when he got off his bus at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School on Monday morning. He stopped in front of the vehicle’s front right tire.

Then, investigators who looked at security footage say, the kindergartner appeared to bend down, perhaps to look for something he lost.

Seconds after Zackery exited, 50-year-old Joel Lee Hitchcox put the Walker County Schools bus in drive again.

During a news conference Friday, Georgia State Patrol Sgt. Tommy Sturdivan said Hitchcox, of Flintstone, Ga., will not be charged with a crime for running over Zackery in that parking lot. The boy was almost touching the bus when Hitchcox began to drive. He wouldn’t have seen Zackery unless the student was at least 20 feet away.

“This is probably the hardest crash or investigation I’ve done,” Sturdivan said. “Not only did it affect the Bryant family because they lost a child, but Mr. Hitchcox — as most of you know — lost a child three years ago. And I lost one 32 years ago.

“All the main parties involved in this have lost a child. So … yeah, it’s been pretty tough.”

Every year, around 13 children and teenagers die as pedestrians in school transportation-related crashes, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Tennessee, according to the Department of Safety, bus drivers have hit and injured three students in the last five years. Another student died.

  • photo
    A child was fatally struck by a bus at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The incident has left some in the community reeling, grasping for answers to how they can respond to such a death. Zackery’s family and friends will gather for a service at the W.L. Wilson and Sons Funeral home this morning, and at 6 tonight they will get together for a candlelight vigil on the baseball fields on Georgia Highway 95, where Zackery played for the 5- and 6-year-old Royal Knights.

Walker County Schools will dedicate a Rock Spring Athletic Association scholarship in Zackery’s name, Superintendent Damon Raines said. And, on May 9, Chattanooga Valley Elementary will unveil a memorial in honor of Zackery and another boy who died of an illness in November.

At the beginning of every year, Raines said, Walker County teachers and administrators bring preschool and elementary school students to the bus. They show the students how to get on, how to get off.

When students arrive at Chattanooga Valley Elementary, an administrator stands in front of the bus loop, watching to make sure everything is OK. On this day, though, Sturdivan said that Assistant Principal Tracy Llewellyn had to deal with an issue involving two other students.

She heard the impact of the crash. Sturdivan said she immediately ran over to the school resource officer to get his attention.

Hitchcox has not returned to work. He has driven for Walker County Schools for six years, and Sturdivan said Hitchcox had never had a “driving incident” before Monday.

Raines said there is no timetable for his return. Since the crash, the school district has introduced him to a counselor.

“He loves his children,” Raines said. “He loves his students. … He also will have to live with this. He’s definitely struggling right now.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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