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September 19, 2013 Issue

Bus safety saves lives
Venue to change for Kitchens trial

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Bus safety saves lives

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

Georgia led the country in student fatalities in 2009-2010 school year with five student fatalities.

Georgia led the nation again in 2010-2011 with two. There were two additional fatalities in the 2011-2012 school year.


Steve Monroe, pupil transportation consultant with the Georgia Department of Education, presented this information to school system staff recently.

“It’s frightening to hear that Georgia has led the nation in student fatalities; and, we want to do our part in keeping our students safe,” said Dr. Molly Howard, Jefferson County Board of Education superintendent.

To that end, Tracy Walden, the transportation director for the county’s school system, and other school staff held several training sessions for the county’s public school students.

“We’re trying to do more of a hands-on training, instead of just showing the kids a video,” Walden said.

“It seems the kids are more involved when they have a hands-on experience and see for themselves what we’re talking about. They also tend to ask more questions.”

The training used actual school buses and school bus drivers. The students were taken through the various steps of keeping safe while exiting the bus during an emergency, or evacuating, as well as routine loading and unloading practices.

The transportation director said they also teach students to pay attention to the bus drivers and follow their instructions.

“If the bus driver uses the horn, that means there’s danger and the kids know to make sure they are not in a danger zone,” he said. “We went through a lot of scenarios with the kids so they’d be aware of the kinds of things that can happen.”

Walden said bus drivers can and do report vehicles that violate traffic laws around their school bus, for example when other drivers fail to stop or fail to stop completely.

“The sheriff has actually called the person himself and talked to the driver,” Walden said. “We have a good relationship with the sheriff’s department helping us with violators, for example when drivers don’t stop for the bus when they should. We report that.”

Walden said this is one of the reasons they have designated bus stops.

“Anyone who routinely drives along or through a bus route can know where the stops are. That way, drivers can adjust their travel so they can get ahead of the bus schedule or go later and miss it altogether. That’s what we’re after. The fewer vehicles on the road during the bus schedule, the less chance there is of an accident,” he said. “I want to thank the teachers and principals for their involvement in this, the Safe Rider Program.”

Walden said the county’s school board superintendent participated in the drill.

“Everybody got involved,” he said. “It’s a good awareness thing and we just need to make it grow.”

“The board of education, our transportation department and our schools recognize our profound responsibility in transporting our students safely to and from school,” Howard said. “The program led by our transportation department is just the first step in making sure that our students know how to safely load, unload and evacuate buses.”

Jefferson County Sheriff Gary Hutchins said he has received calls from the transportation department about careless drivers.

“I have called and made contact with the people I was able to in the county,” Hutchins said, adding he gave them a warning.

“We don’t want any child to get hurt,” he said. “We really want to be on top of this. We want people to recognize when buses have stopped, they need to stop, too. Our children are real important to us; and, we don’t want any of them to get hurt.”

Walden said anyone with questions or concerns can contact him or Robbi Walden at the bus shop at 478-625-7439.

Venue to change for Kitchens trial

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

A murder trial scheduled to start earlier this week in Jefferson County has been delayed, not because of the usual reasons – court schedule or witness availability – but because not enough qualified jurors could be found to hear the case.

District Attorney Hayward Altman said the trial of Willie James Kitchens of Wadley was to have started Monday, Sept. 16, with jury selection.


Kitchens has been charged with the double homicide of Melanie Troupe, 22, and Corey Kemp, 33. Troupe and Kemp were Wadley residents and were killed sometime near midnight June 23, 2011, in Wadley.

The bodies of the two victims were found inside a home in Wadley that had been set on fire. At the time, a spokesman with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which assisted in the case, said the cause of death for the victims was sharp, forced wounds.

Altman said the jury selection process began with 200 jurors on a list generated at the state level. After many of the people had been taken off the list because they no longer live in the county or have died, the district attorney said they were left with about 60 people.

“Based on the number of individual jurors with relationships and connections to the case, it became apparent that it was going to be difficult to select a jury in Jefferson County,” Altman said Tuesday.

“At this point, there are a variety of options that are being discussed by the courts to determine the next step,” he said. “Everything will be done to expedite the trial of Willie Kitchens because the victims’ families need to have some resolution.”

One option is to subpoena potential jurors; another is to request a change of venue.

Chief Superior Court Judge Kathy Palmer said Tuesday the defense had already presented an oral motion for a change of venue to Judge L.A. McConnell Jr., who was on the bench because Palmer had a scheduling conflict.

Palmer said McConnell granted the request.

“I will adopt his ruling as my own and I’m already looking for counties to go to,” Palmer said Tuesday, adding she will be taking over the case.

Palmer explained the demographics of the county where the trial will be held must have similar demographics by race to that of Jefferson County, using the most recent census.

Therefore, she said, any county being considered to hold the trial will have to have a black-white ratio of 54- to 46 percent, with a 10-point margin either way. The new location will have to have between 44- and 64 percent black, she said.

Palmer said there are other considerations.

Washington County, for example, is in the same circuit as Jefferson County but Palmer said she thinks there will be the same difficulty in finding jurors who don’t have a relationship to one of the victims or to the defendant.

“Too many relations,” she said. “Washington County therefore is out.”

She said that although Richmond County matches, she understood the defense would object because of the publicity and media coverage the murders received there.

“A very close fit is DeKalb County,” Palmer said. “We’re looking. We don’t know yet. We’ll have to have a hearing date and have a general discussion in the presence of the defendant.

I certainly recognize there will be a cost to the county.

“We’re required by the Constitution to give Mr. Kitchens a fair trial.”

Another consideration, she said, is if the county that accepts the trial will have a courtroom available.

“I will have a hearing to further explore change of venue in the presence of the defendant,” she said.

Palmer also said the court has been having problems with some of the public who attend court proceedings.

“We’re experiencing difficulty with people coming into the courtroom with iPads and other similar devices and trying to record parts of the trial and then inappropriately using what they’ve recorded,” she said.

“We’re very concerned about the improper and illegal use of information recorded during a trial or hearing. The official court reporter by law is the only person who can do so. Media must make a proper request, have that granted and still follow the requirements and guidelines.

“A regular person coming into the courtroom is not allowed to use a recording device of any kind.”

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