School bus picking up children
A school bus picks up East Helena School District students at Mountain View Park on Wednesday, May 25. This is the spot where Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen allegedly illegally passed a school bus on May 19. Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP

HELENA — Around 7:30 a.m. on May 19, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen illegally passed a school bus at a bus stop near her home, according to a complaint filed with the Helena Police Department. 

According to the information report, a red Chevy Colorado pickup drove around the bus’  fully extended crossing arm while schoolchildren were loading onto the bus at a stop near Mountain View Park on Helena’s southeast side. The bus driver said he recognized Arntzen behind the wheel and wrote down the license plate number of the vehicle she was driving, which he later submitted to police. 

Montana Department of Justice Motor Vehicle Division records indicate the license plate number belongs to a red Chevy Colorado truck registered to Arntzen’s husband, Steven W. Arntzen, of Billings. 

Arntzen said in a telephone interview that Montana Free Press’ Wednesday morning request for comment on the incident was the first she’d heard about it. Calling on her personal cell phone because, she said, the issue “has nothing to do with OPI,” Arntzen said she was unaware of the complaint. 

“This is the first I’m hearing about this alleged incident. Your email was the first time I’m hearing about it all,” Arntzen said. 

The publicly available report, which was filed the same day of the alleged stop-arm violation, provides few details about the incident. However, in a May 23 interview with MTFP, the bus driver, Stuart Beagles, provided some additional details. 

Beagles said he first noticed the red pickup as he was driving uphill on South Alice Street toward the bus stop. He said the vehicle briefly stopped and then turned around and followed the school bus. 

“I do know there’s a bus stop in our area. I do know I regularly travel to work. I do know that I have a red Chevy. And I do know bus safety should be on everybody’s determination, especially when buses are picking students up and delivering them after school. But I’m not aware of any allegations.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen

“I pull up, I’m loading the kids, and the red pickup went zipping by the bus,” Beagles said. Beagles said it didn’t appear the vehicle was driving faster than the posted speed limit. However, he said, the bus’s stop arm and flashing lights had been actuated prior to the pickup passing the bus.

Under Montana state law, when a school bus stopped on the roadway or street to receive or discharge schoolchildren has actuated flashing red lights, a driver of a motor vehicle that is approaching the school bus from either direction “shall stop the motor vehicle not less than approximately 30 feet from the school bus; and … may not proceed past the school bus until the school bus ceases operation of its flashing red lights.”

Violation of the law carries a fine of up to $500. 

Arntzen acknowledged that she lives in the area and owns a red pickup, but said she has no recollection of the incident or awareness that it was reported to the police. 

“I do know there’s a bus stop in our area. I do know I regularly travel to work. I do know that I have a red Chevy. And I do know bus safety should be on everybody’s determination, especially when buses are picking students up and delivering them after school. But I’m not aware of any allegations,” Arntzen said. 

Beagles provided a statement and images captured by the bus’s onboard cameras to Helena police. As of press time, the department had not responded to a request for copies of the statement and images.

On the advice of the district’s legal counsel, East Helena Public Schools Superintendent Dan Rispens declined to provide copies of the stop arm violation report or the images that were provided to police. Rispens did confirm the report’s description of the vehicle. 

“We originally reported the incident to the Montana Highway Patrol. They in turn turned it over to the Helena Police Department as the incident occurred within the city of Helena,” Rispens stated in a May 25 email. “I have reviewed the photographic evidence of the event and the vehicle is clearly a red late-model compact pickup truck. Looks like a Chevy Colorado.”

Rispens said the photographic evidence did not clearly show the license plate. 

Responding to MTFP’s request for information about the status of the case and access to the photographic evidence provided to police, Lt. Jayson Zander said the incident is still under investigation and that all investigative materials are considered confidential criminal justice information. 

“If a citation is warranted, I expect it will be issued,” Zander said. 

Arntzen said she hopes the incident will raise awareness about bus safety. 

“Even now, with school doors closing, we need to be very mindful, personally,” Arntzen said. “If this is indeed the case, all of us need to be mindful.” 

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services conducts an annual survey of bus drivers aimed at logging single-day stop-arm violations across the nation. 

In 2018, more than 100,000 bus drivers from 38 states and the District of Columbia participated in the survey, recording 83,944 single-day stop-arm violations, including 40 in Montana. In 2019, the most recent year the survey was conducted, 130,963 school bus drivers reported that 95,319 vehicles passed their buses illegally on a single day during the 2018-19 school year, including 90 in Montana. 

Beagles said he’s seen an upward trend in stop-arm violations lately. 

“We’ve had trouble all over the county with people driving through our reds,” Beagle said. 

Beagles said he hopes the recent incident will make motorists more mindful of stopped school buses and the dangers of stop-arm violations.  

“The public doesn’t seem to know you can’t run reds,” Beagles said. “My goal on that bus is to get those kids safely from their pickup point to school.”

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John S. AdamsEditor-in-Chief

John Adams began his professional career in 2001 in Idaho Falls, ID writing and editing for a variety of trade magazines. He covered topics ranging from potato and sugar beet farming to skate park and playground construction and maintenance. Adams started his newspaper career as the city government reporter for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, WI where he covered the City Hall, police, fire and local courthouse beats. In 2005 he joined the staff of the Missoula Independent in Missoula, MT where he worked as a staff reporter covering a wide range of issues including the environment,...