KINGSBURG – When Jeanine Cornett, Salena Torres and Javier Becerra went to work Nov. 5, they had no idea they’d be called on to be guardian angels before the day was over.
The trio was honored by the Kingsburg Elementary Charter School District at Dec. 13 holiday luncheon for the way each of them handled a thwarted bus hijacking attempt that day.
“I believe there’s a guardian angel in all of us,” Nick Taylor, the district’s chief business official, said at the lunch at Lincoln Elementary. “It’s just that one moment when you decide to take action and it makes a difference for a lot of other people. Thank you for being our guardian angels that night.”
Cornett was escorting her sixth-graders home after a day at Calvin Crest Science Camp. When some students needed a bathroom break, Southwest Transportation bus driver Salena Torres made a pit stop around 6:30 p.m. near Jensen Avenue and Highway 99.
Cornett took the students to the restroom, but then Christopher Rey Martinez, 47, stepped on board. Torres took evasive action and hid the keys saying that she wasn’t able to start the bus. She honked the horn to get attention and when Cornett returned, she realized her students were in jeopardy.
Two students went back to the store to alert the store clerk. By then, Martinez was yelling and demanded to drive the students to a religious mission.
Cornett said she has son the same age as her students and after seeing the fear in their eyes, her maternal instincts kicked in. She realized she might have to take drastic steps and readied herself as Martinez paced up and down the bus aisle.
“It’s like all of them were my kids and I was the only parent they had at that moment to try to make them feel as safe as they could and protect them. I didn’t even know if it would turn out great for me, [but] knowing I was going to have to do whatever I had to do to keep the kids safe.”
When store clerk Javier Becerra realized the gravity of the situation, he boarded the bus and commanded Martinez to disembark. The man did so without incident and Fresno Police arrived in time to arrest him.
Torres said she, too, was surprised when Martinez stepped on the bus since she’s driven busses for 18 years and nothing like this ever happened before.
“I didn’t have a chance to close my doors. I jumped on the radio and said I needed help since this man boarded the bus and was threatening to take the bus,” she said. “I was shocked myself but I said ‘you’re not taking my bus.’”
Torres said she too feels protective of students riding her bus and once Martinez hopped on, she knew there was going to be a problem.
“It has to do with the training and the motherly instincts you have. These are your kids once they step on the bus and you’re responsible.”
Becerra said at first he thought the students were simply scared because a homeless man was nearby. When he stepped out, he quickly realized it was a more dangerous situation.
“I just had to do what I had to do. It’s part of my job to make sure he’s off the premises. But then I saw there were a lot of students and he’s inside the bus,” he said. “I thought, ‘oh no, he can’t be in there at all.’ So I told him, he couldn’t be there.”
Martinez complied with Becerra’s orders to get off the bus and Fresno police arrived to arrest him. Like the others involved, he said he thought of his own young family members when he saw the frightened elementary students.
“At first, it didn’t kick in. But then I thought, ‘what if those were all my nephews?’ I put myself in that situation and thought I have to help them like they were my family and take that guy off the bus. I’m just glad it stopped before anything more horrible or scary could have happened. He could have taken the bus and it could have ended up more tragic.”
Cornett recalls feeling relieved when she saw the Fresno Police arrive.
“It just felt like when everyone came together, even when police came, it felt like they were sending the angels”, Cornett said after the initial shock of the incident wore off. Now, she said she and her students are more bonded after having been through the frightening situation.
KECSD Superintendent Wesley Sever said all three handled the situation calmly and credited their training and cool demeanor for the outcome.
“They handled the situation perfectly and followed all the protocols. They treated everybody like family and had a clear purpose and that was to keep the kids safe and get them home to their parents safely. As the students got off the bus, Miss Cornett gave every child a hug. It was an amazing moment.”
Sever communicated with parents through a letter that some changes would be made to thwart any such future incidents by having the chaperone-to-student ratio be at least one to ten during trips where students may be separated for any amount of time from their teacher. For trips involving water activities or other miscellaneous activities, this ratio shall be revised as needed. A minimum of one credentialed teacher and one volunteer or chaperone, not including the bus driver, will accompany students on trips. Parents will be welcomed to join the field trip at the location even if they aren’t needed as chaperones. During unplanned or emergency stops, the bus driver will keep the bus secure with the doors closed, until the driver feels safe to release the doors open.
“With any situation like this we must learn from it and look at what worked and what we can improve,” Sever said in the letter.
On that day in November, Sever said he hopped in his car and drove to the scene immediately. Another bus was brought in to get students home to their awaiting parents.
“It was a traumatic experience,” he said after viewing the bus security footage. “Twice each year, we review our safety plans with all the staff. Sometimes you take this granted, but when something like this happens, you don’t take it for granted. You realize those protocols and procedures are there for a reason.”
Sever said after 25 years in education, he’s never seen a similar situation and is grateful everyone made it home safely.
“Bus doors are opened every day, all around the country. Anything could happen, anytime, anywhere. On that day, there was a clear purpose during this incident and that was to keep the kids safe.”
Also at the luncheon, Mary Silva, Bev Rosas and Carol Bray were recognized as the District’s classified, certificated and administrator of the year.