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'Messing around' precedes Northampton Area seventh-grader's fatal fall under school bus
As 12-year-old Dakota Galusha and his friends joined hundreds of students scurrying into Northampton Area Middle School on Monday morning, something went horribly wrong -- Dakota either slipped or was pushed in front of the rear wheels of a passing school bus.
He died within the hour at St. Luke's Hospital-Fountain Hill, sending a community into mourning and school and police investigators searching for an explanation.
''We know parents and students want answers to what happened,'' said district Superintendent Linda Firestone.
She said witnesses gave conflicting reports that Dakota was either pushed or slipped and fell under the bus as he walked with friends toward school. Officials are interviewing students and plan to view the tape from a video camera positioned near the bus to try to determine what happened, Firestone said.
At Dakota's home in rural Allen Township, a spokesman for the family said the boy's parents -- Kendall and Dina Galusha -- are devastated but convinced that his death was an accident.
He said Dakota's friends were ''messing around'' with him when Dakota slipped and went under the bus.
''There was no fight, there was no big push -- it was friends just messing around,'' said the family spokesman. ''It was a bunch of kids playing around the way kids do. It was nobody's fault. It was an accident.''
Dakota died of multiple blunt force injuries, according to the Lehigh County coroner's office, which ruled his death a homicide. That does not necessarily mean a criminal act occurred. The term -- which means ''death at the hands of another'' -- can include circumstances that a layman might describe as an accident.
First Deputy Coroner Paul Hoffman said there was an incident or ''altercation'' between Dakota and another student that caused Dakota's death. He would not be more specific.
Firestone said school police and state police are investigating, along with the Northampton County district attorney's office.
District Attorney John Morganelli would not comment, but his office will have to review the police investigation to determine whether charges are merited.
Dakota had been dropped off in the rear of the school by a parent about 7:15 a.m. and was walking up a hill to the front when he fell in front of the rear wheels of the bus as it passed him, Firestone said. The bus, which had dropped some students off in the rear, was also going up the hill, she said.
At a news conference outside the school Monday afternoon, Firestone said the parent dropoff zone and the bus zone are strictly supervised by school teachers and at least three security officers. Children aboard the bus apparently were unaware of what had happened, she said.
The name of the bus driver was not released Monday. The driver was employed by First Student, which issued a statement saying the driver had a clear background and driving history.
The regular school day was canceled and counselors were brought in to talk to individual students, groups and even parents. After-school activities and sports at the middle school were canceled.
The school was so overwhelmed with grieving students and teachers that counselors were called in from other schools to assist, Firestone said.
''A lot of people had a connection to this boy,'' she said. ''We have a lot of parents right now who wanted to make sure their child was OK and then mourn the loss of a little boy.''
Tyler Rider, 14, was good friends with Dakota and the two would ride bikes together. Tyler said his friend was lucky enough to not only excel at sports, but do well in school.
''He got straight A's and loved to play baseball,'' Tyler said. ''He was funny.''
Tyler said he got to school later than usual Monday and saw an ambulance pull away, but didn't hear until later that his friend was inside.
''I wish I would have known it was him,'' he said. ''It's awful.''
A tear-streaked Hannah Grube left school early with her older sister, who hurried to pick Hannah up when she heard the news.
Sara Depamphilis, 26, knows more than others what her 13-year-old sister is going through.
''My best friend was killed in a car accident when I was 15 and he was 16,'' Depamphilis said. ''I started crying because I don't want her to have to go through that.''
Hannah met Dakota a year ago and instantly noticed the popular boy. ''People liked him,'' she said.
Giovanna Dematteo's stepfather was Dakota's football coach, and the news hit the 13-year-old hard.
''He was fun, he talked a lot,'' said Giovanna, who received the news during fourth period. ''Everybody almost started crying.''
At its meeting Monday night, the Northampton Area School Board observed a moment of silence for Dakota and high school junior Krista Harakal, who died Jan. 17 after a long illness.
Dakota played baseball, basketball and football with the Northampton Area Athletic Association.
''It's hitting everybody pretty hard right now,'' John Emmons, the association's president, said Monday afternoon. ''It's kind of unbelievable that this happened.''
Emmons said Dakota was very athletic, well-liked by his peers and respectful of adults.
He said the Galushas also have been active in helping out whenever another family was in need. Last year, one of the association's commissioners had leukemia.
''They're the first ones to step up and start setting up for fundraisers to help with money,'' Emmons said. ''I can't say enough good about them. They've just been there -- anybody needs anything, they're there.''
Instead of providing for others Monday afternoon, Dakota's parents were surrounded by family and friends who heard the news and came to their home.
Dakota's family members did not expect or want anyone involved to be charged with a crime, the family spokesman said. They just wanted to grieve for their son.
''They are torn up and aren't thinking of anything right now except for their son,'' he said of Dakota's parents.
He shielded his eyes from the sun as he motioned to a snowman in the front yard, with twig arms and a dark scarf wound around its neck.
''Dakota and his sister just built that this weekend and had a great time,'' the man said. ''He was such a good kid.''
This weekend, Dakota would have turned 13.
Reporters Daniel Patrick Sheehan, Arlene Martinez and Brian Callaway and freelance writer Kelly Martin contributed to this story.