The value of school bus cameras is in delivering the appropriate response to troublesome situations.
Surveillance cameras inside school buses may not prevent bullying, but their effectiveness in providing evidence to resolve such incidences—and even deliver proof of otherwise unreported problems—is beyond question, said several transportation department leaders, adding that they would never go back to pre-video days.
“If there’s bullying going on, we deal with it straight on. The biggest thing cameras do is help you see the situation clearer,” said Carol Valentine, associate director of operations for the Cobb County School District in Georgia.
She pointed out that cameras do not necessarily prevent bullying, as many incidents can occur quietly and not easily heard or observed.
“The driver has to watch the road and doesn’t always know what’s going on behind them. Because of this, prevention may not be achieved,” she added. “Many students never believe the cameras can hear or see them. That is where cameras become a huge benefit.”
Darrell Taylor, director of transportation for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina, which has cameras on all 358 of its buses, said, “Two or three times a week, you’ll hear a student say, ‘Oh, those cameras don’t work.’ But they do.”
Dan Schultz, transportation director for the Southeast Polk (Iowa) Community School District, said he believes the deterrent effect of cameras “goes both ways.”
“Once you’ve had them for some years, students do forget they are there and you see kids doing things they really shouldn’t be doing. On the other hand, cameras do give you deterrence because you’ll hear kids say, ‘Be quiet. Don’t say that. They’re recording you,’” he added. “Your repeat offenders who know firsthand how they work become much more aware. So, I believe 100 percent they are one of the best (tools) you can have on a bus.”
Taylor, Schultz and Valentine all recommended a simple, extra step taken from the classroom that increases cameras’ effectiveness: the good, old-fashioned seating chart.
That approach reduces the time spent when transportation and school personnel must review video following an incident.
“I don’t know who the kids are when I look at a video, so the seating chart really helps us identify who’s involved,” Valentine said, noting Cobb County elementary and middle school students have assigned seats. “If you have a substitute driver, they don’t know the kids and a seating chart is a big help to them.”
Taylor said, “We have a seating chart for each bus and all drivers have their chart. We know exactly who is sitting where—at least, who is supposed to be sitting where.”
Further, he said the charts were especially helpful when a motorcycle recently crashed into the side of a bus traveling its route. “The first thing the police officer wanted to know was who were the students on board. It was so easy to give them that information.”
Taylor and Schultz also noted the value of cameras when serving students with special needs.
“We are one of the few districts in the nation that transport our (Exceptional Children program) students with our regular students,” Taylor said. “If a parent states that their child with special needs was assaulted on a bus, we can pull the video. Also, if the student has a medical emergency we can pull the video to alert medical professionals exactly what occurred and how the student acted.”
Schultz said his staff has used in-bus cameras to “to see if we could find triggers—something that may have prompted a student’s behavior—to see if we can avoid them in the future, change something to help deal with future situations or to add safety devices.”
Valentine said, “Transporting special needs students is a challenge in itself. Having video is a protection for all concerned. If a student is out of control and a driver or monitor is injured, the incident is captured and may be used to assist the district’s risk management department. Many students are non-verbal and/or medically fragile and may be returned home with a bruise or scar. Parents want to know if the injury occurred on the bus. Cameras can come in real handy when these situations occur and may assist in preventing lawsuits.”
Starting this year, Taylor said he has designated one person to pull and review videos each day and forward them to principals’ offices for further action. On average, five or six daily incidents require action. But, he added, “You can watch a video, looking for one specific thing and you’ll see something else happen—a completely different incident that wasn’t reported and may not have been reported, otherwise.”
Schultz, whose 70-bus fleet has been camera-equipped since 2008, shared a similar story. “Just this morning, I was looking at a reported incident and, in the background, a student was chewing tobacco,” he said. “That’s something the driver is not going to see.”
Cobb County buses typically are fitted with three inside cameras, which help with incidents extending beyond inappropriate student behavior. “We will have times when a parent gets on the bus and threatens a student or the driver. We have a camera facing the steps and whatever happens is available for review,” Valentine said.
Such incidents also happen in Winston-Salem.
“Everyone once in a while, we’ll have an unruly parent at a bus stop. We’ve been able to pull the video of parents directing profanity at a driver or students and we’ve had a couple drivers assaulted,” Taylor said. “We have it recorded there and have taken a few people to court for trespassing.”
While cameras may not necessarily deter bullying incidents, they can head off costly, false-claims lawsuits—such as an accusation that a driver assaulted a child—by providing valuable, impartial evidence. “The court system really likes the video. There’s no ‘he said, she said.’ You have it right there in color,” Taylor said.
Taylor, whose transportation department serves North Carolina’s fourth largest school district, noted cameras also provide a return on investment in resolving incidents of vandalism.
“Unfortunately, some students like to cut seats. We can see who did it,” he said. “We’ve got the proof on video and they’re going to pay us back for it.”
Valentine reported the daily grind of the road can be tough on video systems, which can lead to rare gaps. “Every now and then, a few fail. It’s technology and it’s going to happen,” she said. “It can be hard to explain when you think you’ve got it, you pump it up and, all of the sudden, there’s no video. It’s hard to get people to accept it just happens, but it does.”
Still, it’s important to appreciate that video quality has “come a long way since the VHS days,” she said.
Taylor added that a system’s versatility has reached a point where “you can zoom in right on a student in a particular seat.”
“The cameras are much better and they get better all the time,” he said. “I’m getting ready to take an order of 24 buses to be delivered to us. The cameras are factory installed, so we don’t have to worry about getting someone out to install cameras. The day we get the buses, the cameras are ready to go.”
Schultz said he believes the value of cameras is found in the form of an appropriate response to various challenging situations.
“If you’re not using them, it’s probably only a matter of time before you do. It’s only going to take one incident, like the fatal Knoxville, Tennessee, school bus crash, where you had no idea what’s going on to make you wish you had them,” he said. “If you have a driver doing bad things or a kid misbehaving, you can respond appropriately when you have video. Otherwise, there is always a doubt or misconception about what’s really going on. With it, you know the appropriate response and you can make it.”
Taylor agreed. “At the end of the day, cameras are a very useful management tool,” he said.
Reprinted from the March 2017 issue of School Transportation News magazine.