Problem: A small Iowa school district was alarmed at the number of cars passing school buses when the stop arm was out. The district, Spencer Community School District, which serves more than 2,400 students in northwest Iowa, was especially concerned about drivers passing the stop arm around the bus that carried its 3- and 4-year old pre-schoolers.
Solution: The district in the 2003-04 school year, with a grant from the state transportation department, purchased a $2,000 video camera and mounted it on the inside of the bus facing outward. Spencer school system then let the public know through a media campaign that a camera was placed on one of the buses in the fleet. School officials did not tell the public which bus had the camera. The results were surprising and encouraging. In the six-month trial period, 40 drivers were caught and the videos were turned over to the local police department. All but three of the violators pleaded guilty to passing the stop-arm after seeing themselves on tape committing the infraction. The second half of the year, there were only four drivers who passed the stop arm.
However, there were some drawbacks with the analog camera. While bus drivers were told to talk into the camera and give the license number and color of the car that passed the stop arm, the district's transportation supervisor, Dan Schultz, still had to spend hours reviewing the tape to get to the exact moment when the infraction occurred. And there was a storage issue. Because the video was considered evidence for a trial, Schultz had to prove the tapes were kept in a secured location.
"I basically had to have my office turned into an evidence room. Then I had to keep 40 videotapes on stock. That was a real hassle. ... It was very disorganized,'' says Schultz.
But Schultz didn't want to abandon the program. So he went in search of a better system. He eventually decided to purchase a digital video system. The digital system allows Schultz to just punch in the time that a violation occurred to locate it on the video. And he doesn't need any more storage bins for the tapes. He stores the footage on his laptop's hard drive.
The district now has four buses equipped with three digital cameras each. One is mounted inside the bus to monitor student behavior. If a child misbehaves on the bus, the footage is sent to the principal who can take disciplinary action. The other cameras continue to monitor drivers who pass the stop arm. It costs about $3,000 to equip a bus with three cameras. The district paid for the cameras out of its general fund and plans on equipping all of its 20 buses with units eventually. A parent group is currently trying to raise funds to purchase the cameras sooner for all the buses.
The Spencer school system loans six of its analog cameras to other schools districts in Iowa, which get to keep them for one year.
Schultz says if a school system is considering purchasing cameras, it should make sure it has the support of its local police department first. School transportation directors should not use an assortment of different types of cameras for buses, but stick with the same video system on all its fleet. Though digital systems are more costly, in the end, it will save school officials time, he says.
Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.