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Students return to Grand Rapids as officers investigate why school bus driver lost control

Lindsey Wangberg, spokeswoman with Sanford Medical Center in Bagley, Minn., gives an update on nine students and a teacher from Grand Rapids, Minn., who were brought to the hospital after a Monday morning school bus crash near Lengby, Minn. The driver of the bus and three other students were taken to Essentia Health in Fosston. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

LENGBY, Minn.—The Minnesota State Patrol is investigating why a Grand Rapids, Minn., school bus driver lost control of the vehicle before a Monday morning rollover sent him, a dozen students and a teacher to hospitals in northwest Minnesota.

The 22 high school students involved in the crash near Lengby returned home Monday after the bus they were in went into the median and overturned, Jessica Setness, a spokeswoman for the Grand Rapids-based Independent School District 318, wrote in an email. The bus was headed to the Great Plains Youth Institute in Crookston for a field trip when bus driver Stephen David Charnley, 57, of Bovey, Minn., lost control of the bus around 8:20 a.m. Monday, according to a news release from the State Patrol.

The crash injured Charnley, social studies teacher Eric Daniel Northard, 57, and 12 students, the State Patrol said. Charnley and three 17-year-old students were taken to Essentia Health in Fosston, Minn., while Northard was transported to Sanford Medical Center in Bagley, Minn., with nine students between the ages 16 and 18.

Everyone who was taken to hospitals was treated for non-life-threatening injuries, the State Patrol said. Those students eventually were picked up by their parents and taken home, according to the news release.

Charnley and Northard still were in the hospitals as of Monday afternoon, Setness wrote.

The remaining 10 students who were not injured were picked up by a Fosston Public School bus and were taken to Bagley Elementary School, the State Patrol said. There, they were offered food, water and a room to stay in while they waited to be taken back to Grand Rapids, Bagley Superintendent Steve Cairns said.

The students didn't request any counseling services, though Bagley administrative staff kept the children company, Cairns said. In the nine years he has been Bagley's superintendent, this is the first time the school has had to help another district after a crash involving so many students.

"We're available, and we're here to serve," he said. "When we can be of service and help another school, we'll just do our part to assist."

The crash remains under investigation, but no alcohol was involved, according to the State Patrol. Only Charnley was wearing a seat belt because the rest of the bus was not equipped with seat belts, State Patrol Sgt. Jesse Grabow said.

School buses like the one Charnley was driving are not required by Minnesota law to have seat belts for its passengers, Grabow said.

"School buses are larger and heavier, which means that the mass and weight of the bus is designed to take the bulk of the crash force," the Minnesota Department of Public Safety wrote on its website. "They are also far less likely to roll over in a crash."

Federal regulations require buses to be built so they provide "compartmentalization" for students, according to the Public Safety Department. That means the interior provides protection for children so they don't need to wear a seat belt.

"This is done through strong, closely spaced seats; energy absorbing foam seat backs; and a 24-inch seat height," the website said. "Visualize this by thinking how an egg carton protects the eggs."

Independent School District did not return messages left by the Herald seeking comment by press time.

Emergency responders worked quickly to help crash victims, said Lindsey Wangberg, spokeswoman for Sandford's Bagley branch. The hospital holds training exercises in preparation for crashes involving multiple patients.

"It's something we prepare for," she said. "We never want it to happen."

Grabow declined to say whether criminal charges are pending in the case.

Lengby is about 35 miles west of Bemidji.

Grand Forks reporter Janelle Vonasek contributed to this story.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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