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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Canyons District provides counseling after student hit by school bus

Mar 07, 2023 03:50PM ● By Julie Slama

Investigators review the scene on Jan. 27 after a Jordan High teenager, Jennifer Flores Diaz, was hit and killed by a Canyons School District bus turning north onto State Street. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

It was a gray late January day with temperatures in the high 30s when Jordan High students were done for the day at 12:45 p.m., with an early dismissal bell schedule. About 15 minutes later, Jordan sophomore Jennifer Flores Diaz was walking across State Street at Princeton Drive (8375 South)—and never made it to the other side.  

A Canyons School District school bus taking home 16 Hillcrest High students turned left from the neighborhood west of State Street and struck the 15-year-old, who died at the scene.

Once he learned of the accident, Student Services Program Administrator BJ Weller, who is a certified counselor and licensed clinical social worker, rerouted from going to a nearby school to the scene where he was able to provide immediate counseling services and support.

“Everybody there was working extremely well together—the police, our transportation team, risk management, our crisis team,” he said. “Everybody was there with compassion and trying to protect privacy and to let the police officers do their investigation. It was a picture of community partners working together to support a tragic situation.”

In addition, several others from the District’s student services personnel with backgrounds in counseling went to the scene to assist the teenager’s extended family who arrived, the Hillcrest students on the bus and the 70-year-old bus driver. 

Hillcrest High administrators went to help get the students to a nearby restaurant to provide police statements and awaited parent or guardian pickup, Canyons District spokesman Jeff Haney said.

Since that day, Jan. 27, Jordan High Principal Bruce Eschler said there has been an outpouring of support for Jordan students in remembrance of the 15-year-old. Diaz, who attended Jordan since her freshman year, was an older sister and babysitter, and who liked to play soccer.

“She’s a good kid, with lots of friends,” he said. “She’ll be missed.”

Eschler released an immediate statement to the Jordan community.

“Our deepest condolences go out to the student’s parents and family and to Jordan High teachers, staff and students who are struggling with pain and loss,” it said. “This is a difficult time for all of us. We want to express our appreciation for the support you have shown our school community as we’ve faced a time of intense difficulty.”

That night at the Jordan High boys and girls basketball games, there was a moment of silence in her honor. A community vigil was held, and a makeshift memorial of flowers, balloons, notes and candles stands on the corner near where the accident occurred.

Jordan student body service vice president Franklin Lovell knew Diaz through friends.

“It’s hard to go through when it’s someone in our community and to see the effect on her friends and family is devastating,” he said.

Days later, students rallied together to release balloons from the school soccer field in her memory. Students in several neighboring schools wore her favorite color blue or Jordan High school colors in her honor and high school student leaders in Canyons and Murray school districts delivered banners in support, Eschler said.

“Anytime we have these tragedies, our sister high schools always try to support,” he said. “There’s a big outpouring by the community to ensure everyone’s taken care of.”

Jordan student body president Spencer Jackson said it was appreciated.

“The schools I met with wanted to show they care and understand what we’re going through,” he said.

While Hillcrest High students are trying to find a way to support their own students who were on the bus and can’t be identified for privacy reasons, their student leaders were one of the first to deliver a banner that said, “We love you, Jordan.”

Hillcrest High Principal Greg Leavitt said that they shared supporting their sister school in the school newsletter.

“It’s really good that our students reach out to each other like that,” he said. “Our student body officers get together quite a bit in the district so they know each other quite well and want to support one another.”

While police are conducting an investigation, Canyons School District is also internally investigating, Haney said. 

Canyons’ investigative team is comprised of human resources, transportation and risk management personnel who will look into the accident, Haney said.

“It’s always a challenge to respond to a crisis that is going to be heartbreaking for so many people. Every crisis is different. When we respond to crises, we are here to provide counseling and our support,” he said.

Three student services personnel came to the scene on Friday to provide assistance and grief counseling to the students and the bus driver and then later to the victim’s family when they arrived, Haney said. 

“We were able to support folks, to talk with them and make sure that they had what they needed emotionally that day. Obviously, it was a very traumatic experience. This one in particular because it was in the Canyons District with the Canyons District school bus and Canyons students and a bus driver were involved. I think it hit really hard for many, many people. So, we immediately deployed the resources necessary to support our community,” he said.

Counseling services were available to the community that night at Jordan High as well as Hillcrest High administrators reaching out to its 16 students to make sure they had the needed support, Haney said.

Students were able to talk with counselors when they returned to school on Monday at both schools as well as at the schools where the siblings attended. Weller said that students are encouraged to talk with someone, write or journal about it, get professional help, make a positive difference such as serving others, and take care of themselves with sleep, healthy eating and exercise.  

Haney said Jordan faculty and staff were prepared to talk to students and know what to look for with those who were struggling and be able to get them to the counseling center to help, where six counselors and two social workers were available as well as additional support from the district office.

Eschler said it was a collaborative effort.

“I’m really proud of our teachers and counselors for looking out, watching and ready to help our students,” he said. 

Additional effort was made by Hillcrest High administration and counseling to provide the support to the students who were on the bus and for anybody else who was affected, at any of the District’s schools, Haney said.

Hillcrest’s Leavitt estimates there was an increase of 50 counseling visits following the accident.

“I feel like the kids know that we care about them—and the Jordan kids know that we care about them. I feel like the community knows that we’re doing our best to care about them,” he said.

Weller said that when he arrived on the scene, one of those he helped was the bus driver. Weller describes him as a “sweet man with a gentle soul who was just in shock.”

While Haney can’t comment on specifics of the bus driver, who has driven for the District for four years and following protocol, was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation. However, he did say, “We are providing counseling services to the bus driver, who is understandably very upset. We want to make sure that the bus driver gets the services and supports necessary because it’s been a tough time for everyone, him included.”

The driver, as well as all 181 drivers in Canyons School District, has a commercial driver’s license and a criminal background check.

“Canyons District provides that training for bus drivers, and then they can get their license,” Haney said, adding that the course is free. “It’s a substantial amount of training to be a bus driver in the Canyons School District and we do constant training and updating. When accidents happen, there are reminders to our bus drivers on things that they’ve already been trained on to keep in mind as they head out on their routes every day.”

School bus 1279 was able to be driven away from the scene as no damage was done to the vehicle, Haney said. It was taken into custody by police following the accident.

It is one of 185 buses in the Canyons District fleet that the Utah Highway Patrol annually evaluates.

“Every single bus is evaluated for safety elements and to ensure that all of the parts are working correctly. They regularly undergo inspections, and we have a team of mechanics that ensure that all of our buses are working,” he said.

Those evaluations are performed typically in the summer.

Canyons administrative team met that Friday and the Monday following the accident and talked about it, including reviewing the District’s response.

“We’re constantly evaluating how we respond to crises. And then of course, what we can always do because there’s always something we can do to improve our processes moving forward,” Haney said. “Our emergency management team has an incident command manual with a general guideline of how to respond to emergencies. We use our expertise and experience to help us.”

The emergency management team that meets regularly every eight weeks came in place after a student shooting at Union Middle School in 2016. It was used again in spring 2017 when a shooting occurred after school near Brookwood Elementary, which left a student injured and killed another and the child’s mother.

“Since that time, it’s become even more solidified. While we are often given direct tasks, such as a safety audit of our schools and buildings, we review our emergency response plans and any issues that we need to develop a plan for,” Haney said. “It’s always a challenge to respond to a crisis that is going to be heartbreaking for so many people—and every crisis is different.”

Following the accident, Canyons District Superintendent Rick Robins acknowledged the accident in a statement.

“The loss of any child—at any time—is heartbreaking for a community,” it said. “Today, the entire Canyons District community mourns the tragic passing of one of our beautiful and cherished students who died in an auto-pedestrian accident involving a school bus. Canyons District sends our heartfelt condolences to the family of the student, as well as the student’s friends, teachers, and school staff who will struggle with the pain and loss of a loved one.”