A 14-year-old boy was charged with shooting a school bus driver to death as she drove her morning route Wednesday. A relative of the driver said she had reported the boy a day earlier for using smokeless tobacco on the bus.
None of the 24 schoolchildren of all ages on the bus was hurt, even though the bus crashed into a utility pole after driver Joyce Gregory was shot.
Authorities declined to comment on a motive for the shooting or identify the high school freshman accused of killing Gregory, but neighbors said his name is Jason Clinard.
Public defender Jack Lockert, who met with the suspect for about 45 minutes, said he was in shock.
"We obviously feel like he has severe mental issues," Lockert said. "He's an A and B student and had never been in trouble before."
Two weeks ago, Gregory told family members she was having trouble with students chewing tobacco on the bus, according to her cousin Jacqueline Reed.
After several warnings, she reported them to school administrators Tuesday, Reed said, adding that the 14-year-old was one of the students Gregory reported.
The shooting happened around 6:15am on an unpaved rural road just outside Cumberland City, about 80km northwest of Nashville.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said the suspect had not yet boarded the bus when the driver was shot.
Police said the weapon used was a .45-caliber handgun, but they would not say where the boy got it.
"We've heard stories that there was an argument, that he may have been disciplined by the bus driver, but right now we're trying to sort through those stories to see exactly what happened," Johnson said.
District Attorney Dan Alsobrooks said the suspect has been charged with first-degree murder in Juvenile Court and was being held without bond.
He said the boy could face adult charges as the investigation continues.
Gregory was a teacher's assistant for four or five years and had been a bus driver for the past two years, said Phillip Wallace, director of Stewart County Schools.
"I lost a good friend this morning, so I'm hurt," said Bill Austin, a schools supervisor. "We're trying to do our level best to get our kids through this. That's what we've got to do right now."
An informal school safety survey released Wednesday by the National Association of School Resource Officers says more than one in three school-based police officers say violent incidents on school buses are on the rise.
Almost eight in 10 of the school-based officers took a weapon away from a student on school property during the last year, according to the survey of more than 750 officers.