Cameras becoming a vital tool in school bus safety

Safety for students at schools has taken on an added importance in recent years.

The tragedy last year at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. was an extreme example of the violence that can occur in schools. But, there are everyday incidents that have caused schools to take a closer look at how to ensure students are in the safest environment possible.

According to a study released in 2012 by the National Center for Education Statistics, there were about 828,000 "nonfatal victimizations" nationwide among students 12 to 18 in 2010. This included 470,000 thefts and 359,000 victims of violence such as assaults. In addition, according to the study, 28 percent of 12 to 18-year-olds reported being bullied at school during the school year and another 6 percent reported being cyber bullied.

Many of these incidents, according to the study, occurred on a school bus, an area where the only supervision for the students is the bus driver.

TUESDAY @ 6 p.m. | ABC2 News takes a look at reports of violence and threats on local school buses

Local schools are aware of this issue and have taken steps to address concerns of students, parents, bus drivers and drivers' aides.

Howard County was the latest public school jurisdiction to tackle this issue directly. As part of a comprehensive "Safe Schools" initiative, the county announced recently plans that include having 212 school buses with cameras on board this month at a total cost of approximately $330,400.

School officials said each bus has four cameras; two in the front of bus (one facing the steps); one in the middle of the bus; one in the rear of the bus. Additional buses will be configured as funding becomes available as the system now has cameras on about 50 percent of its bus fleet.

"Having cameras is just another tool available to help keep students safe," said David Ramsey, head of transportation for Howard County Public Schools. "It really can assist in an investigation as a driver can't be fixated on every student while driving, as paying attention to the road is a top priority."

Ramsey stressed that the county's drivers and aides are offered in-house training every year on how to deal with various situations, ranging from medical emergencies to fights on the bus.

He added that how a bus driver responds varies on the age of the students, whether the students have special needs and where the incident way have occurred.

"The key for bus safety is to try and find ways to diffuse the situations," Ramsey said. "There are good, safe, common sense approaches to each situation. We were very clear in our training over the summer that you can't assume the camera will be there."

In Harford County, by the end of the school year, 75 buses will be equipped with cameras and they hope to add more as funding and grants permit, school spokeswoman Lindsey Bilodeau said.

Harford County Public Schools bus drivers are also provided 11 hours of in-classroom, pre-service instruction, which includes two hours specifically devoted to student management. 

Bilodeau said this is followed by six hours of first aid, CPR and AED classes; five hours of special needs classroom training, an eight-hour defensive driving course; two hours of diversity training; and 20 to 30 hours of behind-the-wheel training. 

Along with that, Bilodeau said, new drivers have a 30-day behind-the-wheel evaluation, and all drivers and attendants are evaluated annually.  During the year, all drivers must attend six hours of in-service safety meetings, which include a behind-the-wheel skills course.

"Our schools are encouraged to conduct driver meetings twice a year to discuss any issues," Bilodeau said.  "Some schools supporting students with special needs conduct training sessions for drivers on how to deal with their unique population."

Baltimore County Public School officials said they are taking aggressive safety steps as well.

BCPS spokeswoman Diana Spencer said 87 percent of the school buses owned by the county have cameras on them. This equates to 889 of the county's 973 school busses.

In addition, Spencer said Baltimore County increased its annual in-service training for bus drivers and aides from a half a day to a whole day.

Spencer added that the county stresses crisis prevention intervention techniques when dealing with bus violence.

"While most days go by incident-free, we recognize that is not always the case," Spencer said. "We teach our drivers to use verbal de-escalation techniques and obviously to pull over to a safe area if the situation requires that. They also have the option of calling administrators or police in necessary."

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