Cameras and GPS devices make buses—and students—safer.
A few years ago, the livelihood of a Florida school bus driver with a spotless 13-year record was jeopardized when a railroad crossing gate crashed into the rear of her vehicle.
Hoping to get Pensacola schools to pay for a new gate, railroad employees claimed the driver failed to stop before the tracks and was struck while running the barrier, according to Eric Fritz, former transportation director for the Escambia County School District.
Fortunately, the bus was equipped with Seon cameras and a GPS system from Everyday Solutions which proved that no warning bells had sounded and the bus had come to a full stop before proceeding over the tracks, Fritz says.
"The driver would have lost her state license and her job" based on the account of two railroad employees, recalls Fritz, who is now the district's energy manager. "But she was right, and we were able to prove it."
Once unthinkable, cameras and GPS systems are becoming increasingly popular on school buses where bullying and fights can frighten students and distract drivers, jeopardizing the safety of the entire vehicle. Officials from Seon, the largest manufacturer of school bus video systems, estimate that at least half of all school buses have cameras, with installs growing steadily.
"These systems have made a huge impact with kids," Fritz says. "They are going to school ready to learn. And they're on time."
Camera/audio and gps systems vary in features and cost but schools can expect to pony up $1,000 to $3,000 per bus for Seon's camera/GPS systems and $400 to $700 per bus for Everyday Solutions' GPS offerings. In addition to tracking bus locations, Everyday Solutions' system offers options that let parents check actual morning bus arrival times on the Web and bar-coded student ID cards that pinpoint when a child gets on and off the bus.
Escambia's cameras and GPS systems have not only calmed the onboard climate but helped the schools improve bus routes, Fritz says. The district has cut the number of buses and the number of employees answering complaint calls, while boosting on-time bus arrivals from 62 percent to 99.95 percent, he says.
Although primarily intended to prevent student misbehavior, these systems also provide physical evidence against drivers who speed, idle excessively, deviate from the designated route, or engage in improper behavior.
School bus horror stories abound. Drivers have forgotten to make sure the bus is empty at the end of its route. One district had a male driver who propositioned male high school students. In another district, a driver closed the door on a student and continued driving down the road, with the student half in and half out of the vehicle. In cases like this, video evidence is critical.
However, Brian Moore, public safety supervisor with the Red Clay CSD in Wilmington, Delaware, blames student misbehavior, not poor drivers, as the leading cause of bus accidents.
Video/audio systems are a great deterrent on buses, even more than in schools, because there's nowhere to hide, Moore says. All a driver has to do is hit the "event" button and the recording is flagged and time-stamped, he says.
Of Red Clay's 17,000 students, only about 100 are frequent troublemakers, with middle schoolers most likely to be the problem, Moore says. Most disturbances start with paper throwing, name calling or students videotaping each other with cell phones, he says.
"Sometimes, the students actually help us by posting videos of the fights on YouTube," Moore says. "I'll take whatever I can get. If they are going to videotape each other, I warn them not to be surprised if they are suspended or arrested."
Beyond cameras and GPS systems, drivers can do a lot to keep a busload of students under control. For example, they should be making frequent eye contact with students and checking the seats for vandalism or weapons after each run, Moore says.
Rob Doss, Escambia's current transportation director, says the drivers today view video systems not as a negative watchdog, but as a positive tool for driver coaching and quick resolution of student disputes.
Video only tells part of the story, he notes, citing a driver's good judgment when a bus burst into flames recently. The driver quickly pulled off the road after he and the students simultaneously spotted smoke. Ten minutes later, the bus was fully ablaze, but the students had already calmly exited the vehicle. Recent evacuation drills and quick action by the driver and students prevented a tragedy, Doss says.
To foster a safe atmosphere aboard the buses, Doss also stresses the role of positive leadership. He meets with the drivers every day, encouraging them, finding out how they are doing, and listening to their ideas. Hopefully, that effort filters down to the buses themselves, prompting drivers to form positive relationships with students that will, in turn, promote a calm trip to school, he says.
Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.