Cameras Add Security for School Buses

Jan. 27--When the mother of a West Valley middle school student was told her child had taken a nail file to a school bus cushion, she assured the district that her child wouldn't do anything like that.

"When we showed her the tape, she was a little bit shocked," said Doug Matson, West Valley deputy superintendent. "The cameras show that the behavior happened."

In recent years there has been a sharp increase in violence on school buses. Nationally, news about students stabbing one another, shooting pellet guns, fighting and sexually molesting other students on buses is becoming increasingly common, reports the American Public Health Association.

To prevent this behavior, many school districts are installing digital video monitoring and bus tracking systems.

Washington state doesn't include cameras or tracking systems as standard equipment for school buses; school districts pay for any equipment they add to their vehicles.

The six new buses West Valley is purchasing this year will come equipped with camera systems, bringing to 36 the district's total of camera-equipped buses.

"The cameras have helped take away the bus-driver-versus-the-student's account of an incident," Matson said.

The East Valley School District bought three new buses this year and three last year. The new buses will share a handful of cameras that are rotated as needed on its 43 buses.

"We would love to put a camera on every bus," said Richard Cook, manager of fiscal affairs.

"Some buses have systems built in. The driver pops in a VCR tape and hits record. The camera flashes on students and then on the driver," Cook said.

"We've had some problems on a route for a few days, even though the kids knew there was a camera on the bus, but we were able to identify the troublemakers and take care of it," Cook said.

Paul Vigil, East Valley transportation supervisor, said conventional school buses cost about $76,000, and larger transit-style buses are about $92,000. Adding cameras and recording systems costs between $1,200 and $2,500 per bus, he said.

Transportation safety involves not only preventing violence and vandalism, but also preventing injuries caused by weather and road conditions. Districts sometimes have to make tough choices about which they're going to spend their money on.

Vigil said the money they have for options goes for sanders; insta-chains, an ice and snow chain system operated from inside the bus; tinted windows; and more comfortable drivers' seats. The district's biggest concern, he said, is getting around rural areas in the winter.

West Valley also has weather-related safety concerns that must be addressed when buses are outfitted. The district paid $180 for a strobe light for a bus that frequently travels through fog on the prairie route.

Central Valley School District added seven new buses to its fleet this month, bringing its total to 87 buses.

"All the buses have sanders, but we didn't equip them with cameras or GPS systems. We can add those items at a later time if we need to," said Melanie Rose, spokeswoman for the district.

Rose said the district has some cameras that are rotated as needed, but it hasn't had the need to equip every bus with a camera.

John Scott, assistant director of transportation for the Mead School District, said the district uses cameras in its 81-bus fleet but not all of them are live at all times.

All the buses used by Spokane Public Schools are camera-capable, said Jason Conley, director of safety, security and transportation. But it's up to the driver and school whether to use the cameras. Students who misbehave on the bus are issued a written warning by the driver, and a copy is given to the student's school. Often the decision to put cameras on a certain route is driven by those warnings, Conley said

"Or when there has been an allegation" against a driver, Conley said. "Oftentimes it works better to defend the driver."

Spokane Public Schools contracts with Laidlaw for its bus service. None of the buses uses a GPS, or Global Positioning System, but Laidlaw and district officials have had conversations about installing it.

Laidlaw could install them, though the cost would ultimately fall on the school district, Conley said. The price would be passed on to the district during contract negotiations.

"If we put the stipulation that each bus have GPS in a new contract, that's going to be reflected in their price," Conley said.

The contract expires in 2008.

Nextel is fronting the money for East Valley to try out a GPS on five of its special education buses. These systems can be used to track bus speed and locate buses on their routes. Each student has a bar code that is scanned when they get on and off the bus. Vigil said the district isn't using the system to track the students, but the information can be used if there's a question about when and where they got off the bus.

It would cost the district $800 per bus to install GPS equipment and $65 a month per bus for the service. With 43 buses, that would be too expensive, Vigil said.

Someday the state may include cameras and tracking systems as part of its regulation standards, but probably not in the near future.

"Statewide, buses and transportation are underfunded by $100 million," Vigil said.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.