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They may not have eyes in the backs of their heads, but Washington County school bus drivers are getting the next best thing.
The school district is in the process of installing cameras in each of its 21 buses, and drivers will have some assistance when it comes to monitoring the students for whom they are responsible.
“When looking at our data, that’s where the majority of our disciplinary referrals are coming from is bus behavior,” said Superintendent of Washington County Schools Robin Cochran. “If I get a phone call, or if a parent stops me to talk about something, a great portion of the time, it’s a bus issue.”
Cochran said the local school district will spend $27,000 to equip all 21 of its buses with the new technology, which comes to a cost of $1,286 per bus.
“It was a $27,000 cost, but it was something that you have to think, ‘Can you put a cost on safety?’ The other thing is the drivers’ safety. It’s the only position in the district that we ask someone to turn around, not look at the students, have 50-plus people behind them and tell them to control them and ask them to behave; and while you’re doing that, drive a bus,” Cochran said. “We can equip them with all kinds of behavior measures and strategies, but at the same time, they don’t have eyes in the back of their heads.”
She added that the cameras will help answer some questions that previously could not be answered when incidents have occurred on buses.
“One of the first things parents say to me is, ‘Are you certain that my child did that,’ or ‘How do you know my child did that.’ It’s a he-said, she-said case, and for the driver and the bus monitor, it’s very difficult to rule on what happened,” Cochran explained. “Some of the incidents happen with such small children that they can’t recall or can’t articulate back what happened or what was said.”
Cochran said the cameras are not being installed with the intent of catching anyone doing something, but to support the students, staff and parents of the district.
“It should be that when we get a complaint, we should be able to narrow it down,” she said. “This is something we started working on last year. The bus drivers came and had a meeting with me. We have a committee, and we talked about regulations in the district called the Positive Behavior Instructional Support system (PBIS). It’s a system we use district wide, and it applies to buses, too.”
With the cameras in place to see bus activity, Cochran said steps are also now in place through the PBIS system that detail exactly what happens if there is a problem on a local school bus. She said there is a document that is given to all parents and staff members outlining possible behavioral violations, as well as the consequences for those violations. She said the system is clear and not subjective, and everyone follows the same policies.
“You want a continuum of circumstances. We’ve looked at the parents’ responsibilities, and we’ve let people know that cameras are recording on our buses, and we’ve talked about guidelines. The main thing is that everyone understands we are serious about this. It’s not just something we’re doing as a reactive measure. We’re trying to be as proactive as possible so that everyone knows that riding a bus is a privilege, and you should know what to expect,” Cochran said. “Parents should also expect that the drivers will talk to students in a courteous manner. It’s our norm, and it’s how we plan to operate. We’re working a lot on customer service.”
Cochran said monitors will continue to be aboard local school buses even when the cameras are installed. She said some buses had used teen monitors, such as high-school students, but the move is on to place adult monitors on all buses.
“We had moved to almost all adult monitors on the buses this year, and we realize that’s not enough. It’s probably helping a little bit, but it’s not deterring the behavior like the cameras will,” she said. “In some incidents, it will take us pulling the students in and showing them what they did. It should be an instructional tool, teaching them how to respond and behave in situations. We have to be instructional because for some of these kids, it’s their first time riding a bus, and some of them are 4- and 5-year olds.”
The drivers’ viewpoint
James “Pogo” Mann, transportation director for Washington County schools, said his drivers welcome the cameras.
“The feedback I’m getting is that the drivers are very pleased. We’ve had a few cameras before, but they were not as good as these,” Mann said. “These are good, solid-state cameras. We’re looking for ways to protect our kids and protect our drivers, and these cameras are head-and-shoulders above the old ones we used to use.”
Mann said the old cameras were only on a few buses. Cochran added that the old camera system was often unclear, and at times didn’t pick up audio if an incident occurred on a bus.
Terry Tope, the school district’s head mechanic at the bus garage, said he plans to have all of the cameras installed by the second or third week of February.
Mike Scyphers is the school district’s technology coordinator, and he said the new cameras are very high tech. Each bus features a front and rear camera to pick up activity on the entire bus. Scyphers said the new cameras will record to a 160 GB hard drive, which is locked inside a tamper-proof box above the driver’s head. The video is recorded in color, unlike some older camera systems, and the audio will also be recorded clearly from within the bus.
Scyphers said the cameras will automatically come on within one minute of the bus being started, and will record the entire time the bus is in operation. When the bus is turned off, the cameras will roll for an additional amount of time to record activity that might take place. He added that the capacity of the hard drives used will allow the cameras to record for several weeks without having to be reset.
Cochran added that this is a good system because some older systems simply recorded to the capacity of the tape or other device used to store data, then simply copied over that data. The new system will allow school officials to go back over a much greater time span to see what has been happening on buses.
“Sometimes, parents call two or three days later, and there might have been a significant incident, but the tape has been written over. Now, the new cameras will record to a removable hard drive, so we’ll have that footage available to review,” she said. “It won’t be the end-all, be-all of our problems, and I know that, but it will help us,” Cochran added. “We’re being as proactive as we can. It’s an investment, and if the camera system lasts 10 years, then it’s less than $3,000 a year, and it’s probably a good investment for the risks that we take on the buses every day.”