Video In Defense Of School Children
Video In Defense Of School Children

Jul 1, 2004 12:00 PM

Television viewers across the nation recoiled in horror this February when news programs repeatedly showed video from a school bus surveillance system of a 12-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., boy being beaten by at least seven of his peers while riding home from school. Fortunately, the victim was not seriously injured.

That same month, a 12-year-old girl in Long Island, N.Y., was knocked unconscious for at least 15 hours after being struck on the head by other students on a school bus taking them home from middle school.

While these are extreme cases, school bus incidents are not uncommon. For the past four years, one rural school district in Georgia has taken a host of steps to improve its students' safety both inside and outside its buses.

"Everything is geared to the safety of the students," says Jeff Turner, Ed.D., transportation director for Monroe County Schools. "We are trying to be pro-active, not reactive."

The results are improved safety for the district's 3,800 pre-kindergarten through high school students riding school buses daily. Due to the nature of the district's largely rural area, some of the students ride a school bus up to 90 minutes each way.

Last summer, Turner began working with Boca Raton, Fla.-based ADT Security Services Inc. to install four color digital video cameras on each of the district's 60 buses, as well as a digital video recorder with an 80GB hard drive. The cameras and the DVRs are part of the BusSecure system from GE Security.

The system interfaces with a bus's onboard computer, recording data that includes speed, braking and safety signal activation, such as stop sign arms and flashing lights. The driver can also press an indicator switch that will mark specific video for easy retrieval later.

ADT technicians mounted two cameras, one in the front and the other in the middle to monitor activities toward the back of the bus. A third camera is mounted above and to the left of the driver's seat to provide a view of the main door. The final camera is mounted just outside the window on the driver's side and is used to help identify vehicles that illegally pass the bus once the driver has dropped a stop sign when loading and/or unloading passengers.

A microphone located at the front of the bus captures audio from throughout the vehicle and allows the driver to add comments to events. All video and audio is recorded on the DVR kept under lock and key and hidden on the bus. The hard drive can be easily removed and connected to a PC in each school and in Turner's office. District personnel can quickly burn video to a CD to share with law enforcement. Individual shots may also be printed to paper for distribution. Each hard drive has the capacity to record about three weeks worth of video.

Turner said before upgrading to the DVRs, Monroe County Schools used VCRs to record bus cameras.

"There were major drawbacks to VCRs," he says. "For one thing, our long routes meant we couldn't record more than a day or a day and a half on one tape. The units were not as reliable and more prone to breaking down or requiring service. It took much longer to locate an incident, while the DVRs can find video by time and date almost instantly. And finally, the VCRs only allowed us to have one camera per bus."

Also, the DVR's ability to print pictures easily has turned out to be a major tool in maintaining student discipline, Turner adds. "Sometimes when we call a parent about a disciplinary problem, we hear 'My child would never hit anyone.' When we show them the photo of an incident, that usually helps to remedy the situation quickly."

The video from the DVRs is also watermarked so that it can be used in court as evidence.

The district's buses are also equipped with the Child Reminder System from Exton, Pa.-based Wolfington Body Company, which helps ensure that no passengers or belongings are left inside the bus after the completion of a route. The driver has 30 seconds to deactivate the system, which is located at the back of the bus. If the operator fails to do so within the required time, the horn will begin to blow. By walking to the rear of the bus, the driver has the opportunity to double-check the vehicle before disembarking.

Each bus is also equipped with an automatic vehicle locator (AVL), a device that makes use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to enable the district to remotely track the location of its buses. Using the AVL system, Turner can pinpoint the exact location, ground speed and direction of his fleet. The system also allows him to see where each bus has made a stop.

"That comes in handy when a parent calls to say the bus driver didn't stop to pick up their child," Turner says. "I can immediately confirm that the driver did stop and even tell the parent what time the stop occurred. And if there was no stop, I can take that up with the driver."

The district purchases five or six new buses each year and equips them with Hindsight 20/20 sensors from Sonar Safety Systems of Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Mounted on the rear of each vehicle, the sensors detect cars, trees and other objects and beep to let the driver know when the bus is within nine, six and three feet of a potential collision. Dr. Turner said Hindsight 20/20 has reduced rear-end collisions, as well as district insurance rates.

The total cost of cameras and DVRs is about $4,000 per bus. All other safety equipment adds about another $1,000 for each vehicle. According to Turner, comments about the district's efforts have been very positive.

"We have had a good response to the cameras from the administrators, drivers and parents," he says. "Most of our students honor our standards so they have no problems with the system. Some of them even said they feel safer riding on the buses with that extra layer of protection."

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