In an emotional ceremony, the Alabama superintendent of schools presented proclamations Thursday to each of the students who were on their school bus when a gunman forcibly abducted a schoolmate and killed their driver
Choking back tears, Tommy Bice said the children displayed safety skills that were taught to them by Charles "Chuck" Poland, Jr., the school bus driver who was killed saving their lives on January 29th.
Poland fought off Jimmy Lee Dykes as he boarded bus in Midland City, affording the kids the opportunity to escape through emergency exits.
As the elementary students were told they displayed compassion and bravery, some made sideward glances at Ethan Gilman, the now-6-year-old kindergartener who was seized by Dykes.
Ethan looked down, wiggling quietly under the protective grasp of Dale County Schools Superintendent Donny Bynum, who stood just behind him. He listened as Bice recounted how the students loved their bus driver. He clutched a handmade drawing of a car and smiled when he was handed a blue folder with his proclamation inside.
Ethan was 5 when Dykes snatched him from the bus and held him in an underground bunker for nearly a week. The standoff ended when law enforcement officers shot Dykes multiple times. They were able to rescue Ethan who was uninjured.
Bice lauded Poland who he said "gave his life so each of the children could grow into the lives they were meant to have."
The students, dressed in their best, left the ceremony to meet Gov. Robert Bentley in his office.
Later, as reporters asked Bice about a piece of contentious legislation that will affect schools, Bice told them that the ceremony "grounds us back to the main thing, our students. It keeps us focused on what's important."
Poland's heroism was also honored by proclamation. A permanent memorial to him has been installed at the Department of Education headquarters in Montgomery.