Rethinking School Bus Safety
Last winter the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security sent a memo to law enforcement agencies alerting them that foreign nationals with ties to extremist groups had bought buses and acquired the commercial licenses required to drive them. The same advisory, according to the Associated Press, stated that the FBI and Homeland Security "have no information indicating these individuals are involved in a terrorist plot against the homeland." The contradictory messages created some confusion among those entrusted with keeping schools and buses secure, but it also illustrated a new reality for K12 school districts nationwide.
In this post-9/11 world, even the exemplary safety record of the nation's school bus fleet does not prevent administrators from having to prepare for all manner of security- related scenarios-distraught parents, gun-wielding students, even hijacked buses-that they never before imagined. At stake is the integrity of what might be considered the nation's largest mass-transit system: Every school day 435,000 buses transport to and from school 25 million K12 students.
These days it seems the headlines routinely concern school bus safety and security. Last November, four students from Lee High School in Huntsville, Ala., were killed when their bus plunged off a highway overpass.
In April, New Jersey lawmakers drafted a series of bills aimed at improving school bus safety, including one that would make it a crime for bus driver applicants to make false statements about their employment and medical histories. In May, a Vermont school bus driver was sentenced to 45 days in jail after pleading guilty to driving a bus while drunk. The driver had registered a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit for operators of automobiles. In March, The Daily News in New York published a five-part series that chronicled a litany of troubles in the city's school bus system, which transports 160,000 students on 8,000 buses to public and nonpublic schools. The allegations included physical and sexual assaults by bus drivers, students, and escorts who ride on buses with special education students.
Eric Goldstein, the chief executive for student support services for New York City Public Schools, says each allegation is being explored by an investigations unit composed mostly of retired city detectives. Goldstein says 52 private bus companies employ the district's 7,000 drivers, who are then certified to drive city school buses. "When we find incidents of wrongdoing, we either suspend or decertify," he says.
As school administrators step up efforts to maintain decorum and prevent disaster on the school bus, high-tech firms have responded by introducing technologies, from camera surveillance systems- both inside and outside the bus-to a school bus radio network that features age-appropriate music and public-service messages promoting school bus safety.
George Taylor, the transportation director for the Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools, says the district is now replacing VCR cameras on its buses with a digital camera system, providing what Taylor calls a "night-and-day difference in quality." The system is primarily designed to help maintain discipline on the bus- and, of course, to identify unruly students. Taylor says there have been cases, for example, of students throwing water bottles at the bus driver. "In that case, it could have been a safety issue if it knocked the driver out or incapacitated him in any way," Taylor says.
GPS Takes Lead
But the high-tech tool that might provide administrators with the most potential security safeguards may be global positioning satellite, or GPS. While GPS is not a new technology, its use on school buses has grown substantially since September 11, 2001, largely because it enables districts to track instantly the location of any school bus at any time of day. The system typically works by transmitting data via satellite from computer hardware installed on the bus to a secure Web site at a district's transportation office. Although districts most commonly use GPS to schedule bus routes and monitor the movement of its fleet, the technology can be applied in other ways, some of them designed to enhance safety and security on the bus.
A GPS system can track how fast a bus is traveling and how often it comes to a stop, including whether it has made the legally required stop at a railroad crossing. Through a process known as "fencing," it can establish a virtual parameter for each bus route and send an alert any time a bus ventures outside those limits. It can monitor each vehicle's gas mileage and provide diagnostic information that can inform a transportation director when a bus needs, say, a new fan belt or more transmission fluid. If a bus collides with another vehicle, the GPS can be used to help reconstruct the accident. And in the event of an emergency, the system comes with a "panic button" that a bus driver could use to alert the district's transportation office. "If parents want to know when a bus will be at a particular stop, we can talk to the driver, get an estimate, and tell the constituent their precise location," Taylor says.
And what about a truly worst-case scenario such as a kidnapping? "We could at least track where they are in relation to where we think they might be going," Taylor says, "and make any decisions we'd have to make in response to the situation." Call it high-tech peace of mind.
Taking Threats Seriously
Although school safety experts such as Mike Martin, president of the National Association of Pupil Transportation, based in Albany, N.Y., insist they do not want to inspire panic about the potential threat to school bus security, they believe that administrators should take the threat seriously. In 2005, Martin says, three leading organizations focused on school bus safety-the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, the National Association of Pupil Transportation, and the National School Transportation Association-requested that the federal Department of Homeland Security provide funding to improve the security of the nation's school buses.
In a memo prepared in advance of a meeting with officials from the Transportation Security Administration, the organizations wrote: "As TSA testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in June 2004, 'Without consistent application of reasonable and prudent security measures across modes, we risk creating weak links that may drive terrorism from one mode to another.' Through FY 04, the airline industry had received $15 billion for security enhancements; Amtrak had received $5 billion; the transit industry had received $117 million; and the intercity bus industry had received $35 million. The school transportation industry-providing over 10 billion passenger trips a year-has received nothing."
It also urged the administration to ensure that the nation's largest public transportation system is at least as secure as other ground transportation modes.
But Martin says the federal government has been largely unresponsive, and he concedes the situation has been frustrating. "In terms of helping our industry, we're the stepchild," Martin says. "They haven't done anything for us. Pilots have steel doors that prevent access. There's nothing that prevents anyone from getting directly to a driver on a school bus. We're very frustrated that Homeland Security hasn't acknowledged that."
In recent congressional testimony, school security expert Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a private consulting firm based in Cleveland, accused Homeland Security of shortchanging the nation's schools. Testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee, Trump stated that he believes the downplaying of a potential threat reflects a national reluctance to confront the possibility that school buses pose a potential terrorist target. "Schools clearly fit the definition of a soft target, and an attack upon our schools would have not only a devastating impact on Americans emotionally but a severe impact on the American economy if the business of education shut downs and/or is disrupted due to a catastrophic terror attack upon our educational infrastructure," Trump said.
The Transportation Security Administration, meanwhile, disputes claims that the agency has overlooked school bus safety. The TSA oversees a program called Highway Watch, in which commercial drivers, including school bus drivers, are taught to look for suspicious persons and activities. The program is designed to take advantage of truck and bus drivers who ply the nation's highways and local roads each day and who could conceivably spot something out of the ordinary.
The agency also started a program known as School Transportation Awareness Training. The program was devised in partnership with the three leading school bus organizations. The intent, according to TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis, is to provide bus drivers, administrators and staff members with training and security awareness information that will help them identify, report and respond to perceived security threats. As part of the program, the TSA has distributed to school administrators and employees 400,000 security awareness brochures, 300,000 driver tip cards and more than 4,000 DVDs on school bus security. The program has also provided training for 62,000 law enforcement personnel and school transportation employees, including drivers. The 24-minute DVD portrays a simulated school bus hijacking and Web-based training for administrators, drivers and other transportation employees. (The School Transportation Security Awareness program is offered free to any district. Administrators can register for the program through the TSA Web site, www.TSA.gov.)
It may be too early to gauge the program's effectiveness-Goldstein says he wasn't even aware of it. And not all administrators believe the federal government is responsible for school bus security. William Bair, transportation director of the Colorado Springs School District, says he does not believe, for example, that the Department of Homeland Security should be responsible for funding GPS systems for school buses. "We funded and purchased the system on our own, based on what the system could do for us operationally on a day-to-day basis-not based on the 'terrorist threat,'" Bair says.
Most times, the GPS system is helping school systems respond to complaints, obtain routing and scheduling efficiencies, or respond to emergencies and assist drivers. "The 0.1 percent of the time that the system might be used to respond or recover from a 'terrorist attack' should not be justification for the federal government to provide a significant percentage of funding for school districts to purchase GPS systems," Bair adds. "Basically, the Department of Homeland Security can't be all things to all people at all times."
Still the Safest Way to Go
Terror concerns notwithstanding, evidence establishes the school bus as the nation's safest form of ground transportation. For that reason, organizations such as the Colorado-based National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services have lobbied for additional funding for school bus transportation to provide more kids with a safe way to get to and from school, says Bob Riley, the association's executive director.
Given the ceaseless scrutiny of school bus safety through the years, it was perhaps inevitable that higher technology would enter the fray. Although GPS units are still a novelty on school buses- Phil Mugg, a former transportation director in Indiana who works today for GPS provider Synovia, estimates that no more than 200 school districts nationwide have installed them-their use is growing. Transportation directors whose districts have installed GPS systems on their buses laud the technology, which enables them to pinpoint a bus's location at any time.
In 2005, Colorado Springs installed GPS systems on 25 district vehicles and 116 buses, which transport 5,000 students to 60 schools across 70 square miles, Bair says. In its first year, a new bus driver got lost in a snow and ice storm that caused gridlock on the city's streets. A dispatcher consulted the GPS system, tracked the location of the bus, and provided directions that enabled the driver to avoid particularly troublesome spots. "It was a long night for the driver and the students," Bair recounts, "but we were able to reassure the driver, the students and their parents."
Last year IC Corporation, the nation's largest school bus maker, installed its GPS units, known as AWARE Vehicle Intelligence, in school buses of 10 New York state districts in an experimental program. Afterward, according to Dane Roth, an IC spokesman, at least five districts installed more GPS units in their buses. Besides providing location and diagnostic information, the AWARE system enables transportation directors to set up anyone who uses the Web site on which the information gleaned from the GPS is displayed-including superintendents or transportation workers who might monitor bus drivers-with vehicle alerts on their cell phones, pagers, personal digital assistants or any devices capable of receiving text messages. The system can also track fuel economy and idle time, information that can help a transportation director determine the efficiency of a district's fuel use.
Other GPS systems have been installed recently in school buses in Houston and Boston. Depending on the GPS system, the satellite feed can be picked up by either radio or, more commonly these days, by cell phone transmission.
Settling Disputes Quickly
Earlier this year the Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools bought GPS units from Sprint Nextel, whose system includes handsets manufactured by Motorola and equipped with Comet Tracker, a wireless data software system developed by ActSoft Inc. Taylor says the system transmits information from GPS satellites every 30 seconds. The district most frequently invokes the information to resolve disputes over allegations of speeding or late buses. In the pre-GPS days, Taylor says, a complaint of a speeding bus would require him to go back and forth between the driver and the person who fi led the complaint, for days or even weeks. Today, he says, those matters are resolved the same day. "The speed thing would be a huge deal," Taylor says. "We don't want some bus driver driving 60 mph in a 35 mph neighborhood. This gives us a great tool to bring drivers back into line if, for any reason, they are exceeding the speed limit."
The cost of GPS systems can vary widely, depending on the type of data transmission used-cellular or radio-and the ways in which the technology is applied to perform different functions. The Colorado Springs district, for example, spent about $200,000 in 1995 to install GPS units made by Everyday Wireless, a partner of Sprint, Bair says. Colorado Springs relies on UHF data transmission, which meant higher initial costs to install antennas, but no monthly cellular costs.
Most cellular options cost less than $10 per month for each bus, Mugg says. The Kansas City district spends about $2,000 a month for cellular transmission, Taylor adds.
GPS advocates say its use will undoubtedly expand in coming years to include, among other applications, tracking students as they get on and off each school bus. Mugg believes that the future of GPS use likely depends on how many new avenues school administrators can conceive of in applying the technology. "More and more people are going to get on board," he says. "Your imagination, at this point, is your best tool."
Christopher Hann is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.