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A Case with Too Many Unanswered Questions

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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,

Perry County, 246-CR-2011

v.

Tara Keener

By Attorney Jeffrey B. Engle, Managing Partner, Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC

Charge: Unauthorized Entry onto a School Bus, 18 PaC.S.A. §5517

Tara Keener, a married, registered nurse and mother of two young boys, found herself in a terrible situation after an incident at her home in December 2010. Her oldest son, Xander, age 5, was being dropped off that afternoon by Dum's Bus Service at their house in New Bloomfield, Perry County. As she approached the bus, the doors opened, she could hear two other children yelling that they "couldn't wake him up!" and "he wasn't moving!" The driver yelled twice for the child, to no avail. Tara, relying on her training as an emergency room nurse, realized that there could be any number of scenarios that would cause her child to be unresponsive. Could it be a seizure, is he choking, is his blood sugar low and he passed out? The potential problems raced through her mind. After all, the child had an individual education plan (IEP) for speech and language deficits. There was a history of hypoglycemia and diabetes in the family, but Xander never had any problems...or did he? As she ran through the open bus door and onto the bus her mind raced.

The driver apparently told her she was not permitted to be on the bus. Something Tara vaguely recalls, although her mind was focused on seat number 9, Xander's assigned seat on the bus. The two other children, a third and fourth grader, appeared shocked. "He wasn't moving!" Tara shook the child vigorously and shouted his name. He was only sleeping. Evidently, the child had fallen asleep on the bus before, something the driver for Dum's never reported to Tara or her husband. She escorted young Xander off the bus without incident.

Immediately after arriving in the house, she called the school to report the incident. At the same time, the driver was also reporting the incident. Not because she was concerned for Xander, but because Tara Keener had committed a crime! The PA State Police at Newport contacted Tara to investigate the case. Tara reported the scenario relayed above. She was told in early January 2011 that the trooper had discussed the case with the District Attorney of Perry County, Charles F. Chenot, III and he felt charges were not appropriate. All was well. At least that's what Tara thought.

On April 2, 2011, the PA State Police reversed course and filed a criminal complaint against Tara Keener. The charge- Unlawful Entry onto a School Bus, a misdemeanor of the third degree, punishable by up to one (1) year in jail and a $2,500 fine. The registered nurse was now an accused criminal. She had to report to the Newport State Police barracks for fingerprinting and a mug shot. Her name appeared in the 'In Brief' section of the newspaper. She had to tell her employer about the incident, as was the employer's internal policy. If she didn't and they found out, she would be terminated. Her character and good name was now tarnished.

But what had happened from January 2011 to April 2011 that made the police and the District Attorney change their minds about pursuing criminal prosecution? The District Attorney says he was only pursuing the case because "the bus company was pushing it." The bus company spokesperson, Pamala Schaeffer, says "that's not true, we only report the crime, from there it's out of our hands." There was a disconnect.

How we used the media to solve this case

This case was a shock to the local community. An emergency room nurse charged with trying to help her own son? I received a flurry of letters in my office supporting Tara. I spoke to the District Attorney about dropping the case without success. He was intransigent. I decided to try the case in the Court of Public Opinion instead. If the District Attorney was refusing to listen to sound reasoning from me, perhaps he'd be willing to listen to others in the community, like the ones that were writing to me on a daily basis.

We leaked the story to a local newspaper. The Patriot News reported on the incident in July 2011. The story garnered front page coverage on July 26 and July 28, 2011. 'Pennlive,' a local blog site for the Patriot News, had over 170 comments and 700 'Facebook' hits because of the story in one day. Local TV news outlets also picked up the story. ABC news 27, Fox news 43, and CBS news 21 all interviewed Tara at my office. This case was a real 'head scratcher.' We contacted national media outlets as well. There was interest from the folks at the 'Today Show,' 'Fox N Friends' and MSNBC.

The story hit the national scene on Wednesday, July 27 on 'Fox N Friends' during their morning news segment. By 12:57 p.m. that same day, the District Attorney had filed an application with the court for a nolle prosequi (a request to drop the charge). We went on national TV live on the morning of July 28, 2011 at 8:15 am (See "Breaking News- Mom Could Get Jail for Boarding Bus") and reported on 'Fox N Friends' that the District Attorney had now reversed course, once again. He was dropping the charges.

More questions unanswered

But why had he chosen to file charges in the first place? He had adequate facts to begin with, didn't he? My client was cooperative with the PA State Trooper in December and told him her side of things. She called the school and the bus company to explain what occurred. In fact, the school had made a written report with Tara's explanation that was on record at the school.  He knew that she was a nurse and was trying to assist her own son. No one was interfered with on the bus. The PA State Trooper that handled the case at the preliminary hearing was embarrassed he had to file charges. 

There are more questions that need to be answered. Had Dum's Transportation asserted undue influence on the District Attorney? Was Dennis Dum in touch with the DA after January 2011? Did the DA owe Mr. Dum a favor? Was Dum concerned there was some liability for him? Liability that would be lessened if Tara Keener was an accused or convicted criminal? Was the DA looking to make a name for himself during 2011, an election year for his Office?

The case is now over for my client, Tara Keener. This case is not yet over for me.

1 Comment

Thanks for publicizing the case. Any mother, and especially a mother trained in emergency medicine, would rush to their child's side, no matter what. With the family history, Keener was right to be concerned. In fact, if the child has fallen into a deep sleep before on the bus, he might have undiagnosed medical issues.

I'm appalled that charges were brought against this mother....in April, four months after the event, perhaps for self-serving reasons. I guess you could say this mom was Nifonged.

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