Districts give school buses a security upgrade

Amy B Wang
The Arizona Republic
Miguel Porras, bus driver for Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona inspects his bus after his morning route.
  • Cameras%2C alarms protect kids -- and bus drivers
  • It%27s not known whether the electronics decrease incidents of law breaking%2C disruption%2C kids left on buses
  • Some say human intervention has no substitute

LAVEEN, Ariz. — On a sweltering summer day, Eric Kissel switched off the engine of a school bus.

An intermittent beeping, just loud and frequent enough to be mildly irritating, began.

Within about 10 seconds, the bus horn started blaring, jumping to a deafening decibel and reverberating through the parking lot. At last, Kissel walked to the back of the bus, pushed a button and deactivated the alarm.

It was just a drill, but it is one example of new security technology many school buses now have, said Kissel, transportation director for Laveen Elementary School District in this Phoenix suburb. The alarm system is designed to force the driver to the back of the vehicle any time a bus powers off — theoretically eliminating the odds a child is left on board.

School districts across the USA are installing similar alarm systems, as well as video cameras, digital sensors and other technology, to try to improve bus safety. Though the technology is not foolproof, officials hope it adds another layer of security that will reduce incidents.

Whether school-bus safety has improved because of new technology is hard to measure. The U.S. Department of Transportation tracks school-bus fatalities and says school buses are still the safest mode of transporting kids to and from school, compared with traveling in a car.

School districts don't collect data on non-fatal school-bus-related incidents in a uniform way.

Most incidents are minor, but in severe cases, students have been forgotten on buses, dropped off at the wrong locations or struck at intersections.

New technology

At a glance, school buses remain remarkably similar to how they have looked for decades. They still are painted National School Bus Glossy Yellow, a color formulated in 1939 for its easy visual detection — even by sleep-deprived parents and children in post-dawn pickup hours. Most seats are still drab green or brown vinyl.

However, a closer look reveals very different vehicles than those from 20 years ago. Video cameras throughout the buses record both driver and students. Many districts have installed sophisticated alarms, similar to Laveen's Child Check-Mate System, and real-time GPS tracking.

Miguel Porras, bus driver for Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona inspects his bus after his morning route.

A GPS system might allow a dispatcher to flag a bus if it went over a certain speed or monitor any unplanned stops.

Before, a driver could mindlessly check things off a clipboard during "pre-trip" safety inspections, Kissel said. Now, buses with digital sensors can force drivers to scan all inspection points before the bus leaves the lot.

"That now takes even the newest driver through a comprehensive safety check," Kissel said. "Have you looked at your wheels? Lug nuts? Suspension? Tires?"

Last year, the Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix outfitted all 82 of its full-size buses with new digital video-camera systems. Officials hoped students would curb bad behavior if they knew they were being recorded.

Nearby Scottsdale Unified School District officials are mulling whether to require students to scan identification cards each time they board and get off buses, though the idea is still in its infancy.

New technology also may improve safety off the bus.

Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems developed cameras that can be mounted on the left side of a school bus, with a view of the stop arm that comes out whenever the bus stops.These cameras can capture video of drivers running the buses' stop signs, and the company can issue tickets.

At a district where Bert Herzog previously worked, a driver once left a child on a bus for 45 minutes. Though the student was unharmed, the Scottsdale district's transportation director said one occurrence was enough to convince him that things like the Child Check-Mate System of alarms were worth it.

"One of the worst feelings in the world is to get that call and know that we left a student on a bus," Herzog said. "We're supposed to go back and make sure we don't have anybody (left on the bus), but having that switch at the back of the bus ensures that we walk that bus every day when we're done with our routes."

Technology's limitations

Neither federal nor state law mandates the new technology though some states require bus drivers to conduct end-of-route inspections. Because of the cost, many school systems are not able to embrace it.

The Laveen district spent nearly $57,000 upgrading its technology: about $31,000 on GPS tracking, $20,700 on video cameras and $5,000 on the alarm system.

"Here's the reality of it: It's expensive," Kissel said. "It's like any business. You're talking about often saving what's called soft costs. You're preventing incidents that may cost a lot of money or a lot of emotion."

It's tough to go into schools, many already with tight finances for curriculum and other student programs, to make the case for spending money on bus technology to prevent incidents that might not happen, he said.

And the technology is no guarantee that incidents on buses will be eliminated. Kissel has seen cameras overheat and fail. GPS systems can lag in transmission if a bus travels to an area with poor cellular reception. Then, there's human error.

"Foolproof? Absolutely not," Kissel said. "All those are decisions that people have to make to do their job and do it well."

Still, Kissel said the district invested in technology because district officials made bus safety a priority.

"They were very clear that student safety is paramount and that they want to do this as well as it can be done," Kissel said.

But it is hard to draw definitive conclusions based on records about whether technological upgrades significantly improve school-bus safety. Part of the difficulty lies in how varied these incidents are and in the different ways school districts record and categorize student infractions.

Records requested by The Arizona Republic show thousands of student disciplinary incidents on board school buses in Maricopa County each year. And in two districts — Tempe Elementary School District with 66 bus drivers and 79 buses and Mesa Public Schools, the state's largest public school district, with 545 bus drivers and 517 buses — student bus incidents have remained relatively steady in the past three years even as Mesa buses gradually get the new technology.

In April, a preschool-age boy in Laveen fell asleep and was left behind on a school bus. A mechanic at the district's transportation yard later discovered him unhurt.

Cultural changes

The technology is only as effective as the people using it, some say.

In August, three teens severely beat a Florida child on a school bus while the driver called 911 but did nothing to intervene.

Caught on video, the beating and the driver's response went viral, prompting outrage and debate about what the driver's involvement, legally and ethically, should have been.

It's not just students who misbehave.

In February 2008, a bus driver in the Higley Unified School District in Gilbert, Ariz., got into a quarrel with a 14-year-old high school student.

A bus camera captured a fight that escalated over 15 minutes until the driver and student began pulling each other's hair and pushing one another, prompting a boy on the bus to call 911.

The Scottsdale district has cameras on most of its buses, and they grant a measure of peace of mind for Joe Blare, who has been a school-bus driver there for five years.

"I always try to tell my students, 'Hey, guys, I know what you're doing,'" Blare said. "The cameras are there for our benefit and for the kids' benefit. They're to keep them safe. And a lot of kids, quite frankly, have made accusations toward drivers that are completely unfounded."

Blare said he often drives a bus at full capacity — 80-plus students and no bus monitors. Inevitably, the kids become rowdy.

"I honestly think the human element enters in quite a bit with the kids. You can only have so much technology," Blare said. "I know the name of almost every one of my elementary kids, only because it's easier to discipline. Most of my high-school kids ... I always tell them, you don't want me to know your name."

Allison Dillon, a mother in the Tempe Union High School District in Tempe, Ariz., said her daughter experienced months of abuse that she said included name-calling and inappropriate touching while riding a school bus.

"There were some boys on the bus that just constantly bullied her," Dillon said. "When I reported that to the bus monitor, ... his answer to her was, 'Well, boys will be boys.' "

After throwing "a bit of a tantrum" to get the district's attention, Dillon got her daughter switched to another route. Though the school buses had cameras, that didn't help their case, she said.

"At one point when I asked would they go back and look at some of the (recorded) history, they said, 'Look, we would literally have to pull footage for every day going back. Unless you can give us a specific day for a specific incident, we can't really do it," Dillon said. "We don't have the manpower.'"

No amount of technology could have replaced more parental involvement, she said.

Kissel and other transportation directors said these incidents are rare, given the thousands of students transported every day.

However, he said, the ultimate goal is to work toward eliminating problems — and to do so, the technology has to come with a culture change.

"I'm not trying to hide and sneak around and try to put these kids in a situation to fail," he said. "I truly want the behaviors to change. I want them to learn how to ride safely on the bus."