Surrounded by 36 children — some crying, some injured and all frightened — Jodie Stallard kept her cool.
Their school bus had just overturned, and the driver hung helpless and unresponsive, suspended by the seat belt strap around his neck.
Stallard, the only teacher on board, shook off the shock of the moment, opened an emergency exit and began helping children, many of them injured, out of the wrecked bus. As bystanders came to assist, Stallard turned to the driver. She unlatched the seat belt and lowered him to the floor.
Her quick thinking very well may have saved his life.
On Tuesday, the Kansas Highway Patrol honored Stallard for her calm heroism that August day, presenting her with an Honorary Trooper Award. It is the patrol’s highest civilian honor, and as patrol officials said Tuesday, it was well deserved.
“This award is not given out lightly,” said Capt. Dek Kruger, commander of the patrol’s Troop A in Olathe. “This is a very big deal to us.”
Stallard was starting her first week as a full-time teacher at Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City when the bus carrying sixth-grade girls on an overnight camping excursion left the road and rolled onto its side on a curving highway exit ramp in Bonner Springs.
Twenty-two of the girls and the driver were taken to hospitals, but none with critical injuries.
Kruger said Tuesday that the crash occurred as a result of the driver suffering “diabetic shock.” According to the highway patrol’s crash report, video on the bus showed that the driver’s hands were not on the steering wheel as the bus started to overturn.
Ameet Deshmukh, a doctor at Overland Park Regional Medical Center who viewed the bus video, deemed Stallard’s actions heroic and life-saving for the way she handled multiple injured children and assisted the driver, according to the patrol report.
“The driver may have had death, paralysis or permanent disability without her heroic intervention,” Deshmukh wrote.
After help arrived that day, patrol officials said Stallard was “instrumental” in assisting law enforcement officials, other school staff and the children. They said she stayed “side by side” with Kruger until all of the children had been released to their parents.
“She never once considered herself, her needs or her injuries throughout this ordeal,” the patrol said in a written account of Stallard’s actions.
Stallard has declined interview requests since the wreck. At Tuesday’s awards ceremony, she offered thanks and praise to others who helped after the crash. It seemed that as soon as the bus settled, people were there to help, she said.
“They allowed me to stay calm,” she said.
She also expressed how proud she was of the children.
“I really want to acknowledge the bravery of the sixth-grade girls,” she said.
Emergency responders also were impressed with how calm the children were in the aftermath of the crash, Kruger said.
He also praised other Pembroke Hill staff and administrators for the way they assisted in accounting for children and communicating with concerned parents.
“They were truly remarkable,” he said while reading a letter he wrote to Steve Bellis, Pembroke Hill’s head of school.
After the crash, officials at Bonner Springs High School offered their school as a place where troopers could take the uninjured children. Officials there helped care for them until they could be reunited with their parents. Tuesday’s event was held there in part to thank the school for its efforts.
“A lot of people came together,” Kruger said.
While bestowing the award on Stallard, the patrol did have to turn down a request from Susan Leonard, Pembroke Hill’s middle school principal, who had asked if Stallard could get a “cool trooper hat and Taser.”
“We don’t give those out lightly either,” Kruger said.
He did, however, hand Leonard and Stallard Highway Patrol applications.
Bellis, who led a contingent from the school at Tuesday’s ceremony, said that in the months since the incident, Stallard has continued to care for the needs of the children involved.
“Jodie, your actions represent what we as a school aspire to,” Bellis said. “Jodie, you are an inspiration to us.”