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Gray to serve probation in bus accident

No conviction and two years probation is the sentence Brenda Gray received for charges incurred while driving the school bus that ran off Mount Wesley Road in Telford two years ago, flipping twice before landing on its side and injuring the 39 David Crockett High School students onboard.
Gray pleaded guilty July 18 to eight counts of reckless aggravated assault for the students who suffered severe injuries, one count of felony reckless endangerment for the remaining 31 students who were checked and released by medical personnel, and one count of speeding. All other charges were dismissed in a plea agreement.
During her testimony at the five-hour hearing on July 23, Gray said the #30 bus assigned to her route was being repaired at the time of the accident, and she was driving bus #88. “I had only driven it the day before and the day of the accident,” she said, noting differences in the handling, brakes and overall dynamics between the two.
“What was the environment on the bus?” Attorney Cliff Corker asked, referring to the afternoon of the Sept. 20, 2012, crash.
“Loud, but not enough to say anything,” Gray responded.
The noise level increased as the bus headed toward the curve at the bottom of the last hill on Mount Wesley Road, she said. “I had always prepared for this location by moving closer to the middle of the road because it’s a narrow road.”
At this point, Gray said, five students were standing up, and the boys were “hooting and hollering” for her to go faster. “I started yelling for them to sit down, but I had already crossed the line going to the left of Mount Wesley,” she said. “I jerked the wheel back, realized I had overcompensated and tried to straddle the ditch so as not to leave the road.”
Gray said she remembers the sound of breaking glass and the smell of diesel fuel before she lost consciousness. Upon waking, she climbed out of a window to ensure the fuel was not causing a fire. “I told the kids to stay together and help each other if they could,” she said.
According to Gray, she went to check on Cheyenne Bunton who had suffered an open head wound, and told EMS the students hurt worst were in the back of the bus. “I had a couple of good kids who stayed with me and helped get backpacks off and get the girls’ purses out through the windows,” she said.
In a tearful testimony, Gray described making several trips down the hill to the crash site. “I had to provide information (to responders) for the accident report, but I kept saying, I had to check on my kids,” she remembers.
Even when she realized she herself was experiencing a heart attack, Gray said she didn’t want to leave until all of the students had been taken care of. She collapsed after her last trip up the hill.
At the hospital, Gray refused any medication until her blood was drawn so there would be no question of whether she was intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. While waiting on a stretcher, she was “cussed and yelled at” by several parents.
“I was one of the parents, so I would have been irate too,” she said, noting her own daughter Amy was onboard.
The abuse didn’t end there. “The women taking me to my room didn’t realize I was the driver, and they were talking so bad about me,” Gray remembers.
After waking up to a man yelling at her, a guard was put at the door of her room.
“I didn’t go out intentionally that day and try to hurt kids,” Gray said. “My own child was on the bus, and I don’t blame the parents, but I hope one day we can put this aside and move on.”
While Gray said she knows the students are still having problems, she also continues to suffer from injuries.
In addition to multiple surgeries on her back and neck, Gray was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, and ended up spending a week in Woodridge Hospital for treatment. She hasn’t been able to go back to work and chose to not renew her commercial driver’s license.
Gray said her husband, Harold, is a bus driver for Washington County schools, and each morning she has to hear the engine start and smell the fuel. “I’m reminded every day,” she said.
Assistant District Attorney Erin McArdle called the parents of Bunton and Renee Warren to the stand, who both described the changes in their daughters from the emotional trauma of the accident, and the lifelong restrictions imposed by the physical injuries. Both Charles Bunton and Sharon Warren were opposed to Gray’s receiving judicial diversion.
When McArdle asked for testimony recalling the event from one of the Tennessee Highway Patrol Department officers who responded to the scene and another who completed the accident re-construction, Attorney Jim Bowman objected. Bowman and Corker are serving as Gray’s counsel on a pro bono basis.
“The findings and everything asked about (the incident) are in the report,” he said. “This is repetitive. The whole purpose was to streamline this.”
McArdle said she wanted to ask the speed Gray was traveling, and Bowman said the information was in the report.
Trooper William Shelton said he would agree eight of the students suffered incapacitating injuries; and Trooper James Fillers confirmed Gray was traveling between 52-60 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone.
“The state suggests a message needs to be sent out that when you are in a position of trust, diversion should not be granted,” McArdle said.
Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp said this case has been a little bit different from his usual ones. “In front of me, I have no bad people,” he said.
While Cupp acknowledged a number of children were hurt unnecessarily, he said Gray is a woman of meager means who did not ask the taxpayers to pay for her defense, using her now-depleted retirement savings instead.
In addition, she pleaded guilty to the charges and didn’t try to blame her actions on everyone else, something Cupp said he rarely sees in his courtroom.
“On the other hand, I have two good parents here today,” Cupp said. “Thirty-seven other parents aren’t here, and I can only draw one conclusion — they don’t care.”
Gray’s social history also had to be considered in his decision, Cupp said, noting she has no criminal record and has adopted seven children in addition to her own three biological children.
“This was truly an accident. It was fueled by speed, but one time in all those years, she blew it,” he said, adding he didn’t think distraction was the problem after driving a school bus since 1988.
“So what should I do?” Cupp asked. “Do I put her in jail and take away the devotion of seven children (still living at home), or say it was an accident? The legislature says you get one free shot.”
According to Cupp, some people, by committing an offense, do more for their lives than he could ever do. “She will be tormented by this accident the rest of her life,” he said. “She will never get away from this case, and she knows it. The public will serve as her warden.”
Sending Gray to jail also would not make any difference in whether the parents of the students can take care of their children, he added. “For me to do anything other than grant diversion in this case is simply not right,” he said. “The least I can do is let this lady live the rest of her life and try to get past this, but she never will.”
When Cupp granted two years of probation for the eight counts of reckless aggravated assault, McArdle reminded him a four-year term was the length in the plea agreement.
“I see no reason to go the maximum and take up probation officers’ time,” Cupp said. “This lady will not be back in court.”