York County, N.C., schools this year brought themselves into the forefront of a bus surveillance technology usually found in more urban districts.
The $101,200 worth of digital cameras that the district installed on each of its 46 buses last fall have been giving students an extra incentive not to cause trouble during rides, district Transportation Director Richard Podmore recently reported to the school board.
The state doesn't keep track of how many districts use bus cameras, but Doug Hamrick, with the Department of Education's transportation division, said they're more common in bigger districts that have a greater need and more money for them. No other district in this area has cameras on all of their buses, much less digital ones.
So what prompted York to invest in them?
Officials said there wasn't any particular incident.
"It was just something we wanted to do for the protection of the driver, to assist the driver in monitoring the bus," Podmore said. If something were to happen on the bus, he said, "we have a video record of that. Should law enforcement want that, they can have evidence of that in court."
Not that behavior problems on the bus have been a major issue, he said. He estimated that three fights break out on buses each year.
The district used to have six VHS cameras, but they had to be rotated among the buses and they had all broken down by two years ago.
"As you can imagine, we rarely had one on the right bus when we needed it," he said. "A lot of times when we did place them, it was more reactive than proactive."
Rotating cameras so students don't know if or when they will be watched is a popular strategy in many districts, including Lancaster, Fort Mill and Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Most buses are installed with camera boxes, although districts are not required to use them.
Lancaster has been distributing 10 cameras among its 71 buses for the past dozen or so years, said Bryan Vaughn, district transportation and safety director. CMS has about 100 cameras for its 1,100 buses, said spokesman Damon Ford. Rock Hill and Clover do not use cameras.
York's digital system costs more than VHS cameras but takes less time and money to maintain, Podmore said. With the district's old VHS system, he said, someone had to manually rewind the tapes, plus switch them to different buses. The $2,200 digital camera units automatically turn on with the bus and store up to five days worth of video. They also capture four angles; three within the bus and one looking out the bus door.
The cameras might not produce a huge reduction in behavior problems on the buses -- after all, knowing that there are cameras in banks doesn't stop people from robbing them, Podmore points out. "In some instances, it has reduced problems on the bus," he said. "The students know there's a good video record of their actions so they're confessing up front."
If they don't, the camera will tell the truth for them.
In September, a student's father came to administrators because his son told him he had been unfairly accused of shoving a classmate on the bus. Out came the tape.
"At the end of the video, he said, 'I believe my child has lied to me,' " Podmore said. "To me, that pretty much paid for the system right there. It's very difficult to argue with the video."