ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) – A Unicoi County Schools bus driver has been suspended after police reports allege he was driving recklessly, resulting in the injury of three students last Thursday.
The driver, James Sage, was charged with aggravated assault and child neglect, among other felony charges.
Leaders with Unicoi County Schools said Monday there is nothing they take more seriously than the injury of a student on their property.
“We transport over one thousand kids to and from school every day and it’s a tremendous responsibility,” said Director of Schools Dr. John English.
The afternoon of Thursday, March 17, police records show Sage hit a speed bump on school property at a high rate of speed.
This allegedly caused the injuries to three middle school students who were “thrown” on the bus.
“We also had students share with us the bus driver was going fast and driving erratic,” said English.
English says as the school’s internal investigation is ongoing they have spoken with Sage and other students who were on the bus. The driver and multiple students reported some students were standing or walking at the time of the incident – not in their seats. The Unicoi County school buses do not have cameras on board to verify.
“Our bus driver maintains innocence to us, that he was not going any faster than normal and was in a flow of other buses,” said English. “He reports that there were students standing up.”
Erwin police detail that two students were taken to a local hospital by their parents, one with a cervical sprain and the other with back pain – both were released and reportedly resumed their normal activities at school.
The third juvenile victim was transported to Knoxville’s children’s hospital with three spinal fractures. She was released in a back brace and returned to school Monday, according to her parents.
“The last thing you want is for any kid to experience any kind of injury or issue while they are in our care. We are glad to hear they are doing well,” said English.
Sage was arraigned in Unicoi County court Monday morning on multiple felony charges.
“Two counts of child neglect. Three counts of aggravated assault,” the judge announced to Sage in court.
Sage faces 14 additional counts of reckless endangerment for each of the other students on the bus at the time.
“There is probable cause to believe that James Frederick Tyler Sage failed to show due regard for the safety of the students on his bus in which he is responsible,” said the judge in court as he read Sage the affidavit.
The police report also says Sage dropped the children off at a bus stop unknown to them or their parents, the children saying they felt “unsafe” and were “hurting” on the bus.
The police report details that Sage told them they could not get off until their stop. English says the children did ultimately get off the bus at a stop that was not theirs.
“Our understanding is at the next stop the students just got off,” said English. “It’s a tricky situation for any bus driver if a middle school or high school student is getting up and getting off the bus. You cannot physically restrain them,” said English.
He said protocol is that a driver should immediately alert the school system if a student gets off at an improper stop for any reason. English says Sage did ultimately report this to the school, after the incident.
Unicoi County schools suspended Sage following Thursday’s incident. He will remain suspended pending the outcome of the police investigation and court proceedings.
“These are some serious charges and we want him to have his due process and his say,” said English. “However at the end of the day, our students and their safety are our top priority.”
News Channel 11 requested the personnel file for Sage, who only started driving with the county at the start of this school year in 2021. His only role within UCS is driving the bus.
Though the police report on this incident states at least one parent said they reported Sage for erratic driving to the school, no prior complaints or disciplinary actions are in his file.
Background checks on record show Sage has a clean driving record.
The Erwin police report reads, “Information was also received that bus driver James Sage would drive erratic at times to make the students on bus laugh and get bounced around some.”
English says he met with 23 other county bus drivers Monday morning to review safety protocols and offer them a word of support.
“We have a staff full of really great, dedicated drivers and when something like this happens it shakes them too. They take on a lot of responsibility to put kids on their buses. What I would say to all of our parents is we take that really seriously, our bus drivers take that really seriously,” said English.
English encouraged parents to promptly report any and all concerns with bus drivers to central office.
“We definitely need to know and want to know if things like this are taking place, whether it’s on a school bus or in school, wherever,” said English.
Sage is working to get an attorney and is set to appear back in court on April 28.