Beaufort County School District gives bus cameras closer scrutiny

ESOL teacher Beth Vargas lines students up for the buses Friday after school outside of the Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts.
ESOL teacher Beth Vargas lines students up for the buses Friday after school outside of the Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts. Sarah Welliver

As a decision on installing cameras on school buses nears, Beaufort County school officials say they continue to research several details.

The Board of Education voted Tuesday to ask district staff to prepare in time for its Oct. 16 meeting a comprehensive plan, including cost estimates, for installing cameras. A vote to adopt the plan could come that night, six weeks after the mother of three Beaufort Elementary School students student petitioned for the cameras.

Beaufort is among a minority of districts statewide that do not have cameras in its school buses to help monitor behavior. School district spokesman Jim Foster said about two-thirds of the state's 84 public school districts use them. District officials are consulting some of them as they try to identify best practices, chief student services officer Gregory McCord said.

"I'm surprised to know some districts don't have them," said Wayne Norton, transportation manager for the Richland 2 School District, which has had cameras on buses for nine or 10 years.

In fact, over time, that district has added more cameras to each bus, so that they now are equipped with three or four each.

Norton said they are not a strong deterrent -- kids will be kids he said, and fights and bad behavior on buses still take place. However, cameras make it easier to understand and respond to an incident.

"The schools can get the video and slow it down or blow it up. They can identify what students are involved and just what they're dealing with," he said.

David Weissman, the director of transportation in the Lexington School District 5, said that allows schools to discipline students quickly. If a fight happens on the bus in the morning, students may be disciplined immediately, thanks to the cameras. When they don't show up on the bus that afternoon, that sends a message to the other kids.

In both Richland 2 and Lexington 5, cameras are used for more than watching students.

A few weeks ago, Weissman used footage to find a student who was missing after getting on the wrong bus. He said in some cases, cameras are positioned to monitor the bus drivers,ensuring that they are following proper procedures. Tapes reviewed by district employees at random, he said. He's also used the videos in training sessions for bus drivers.

Both Weissman and Norton say the cameras have been a worthwhile investment.

"You cannot not have cameras for the safety of the students," Norton said. "It's paramount to know what's happening."

Parent Christina Chandler agrees that having cameras on the bus is necessary. In early September, Chandler presented a petition with more than 500 signatures in support of installing bus cameras. Chandler says her three Beaufort Elementary students have been bullied on their ride home.

Since then, she's filed a lawsuit against the district seeking immediate action to stop the bullying.

It's not the first time the district has considered installing cameras. School board members said the idea came up last school year, but they couldn't remember if it was motivated by a specific incident, such as the assault of a 11-year-old girl by two of her Lady's Island Middle School peers last fall.

Most of the specifics in Beaufort County are still in the works. A preliminary plan was presented Sept. 18, but board members asked staff to provide more information.

McCord said it would cost as much as $75,000 this year to lease cameras. It's not clear where that money would come from, and the estimate is subject to change, according to the number of cameras installed in each bus -- the staff has recommended three.

"Right now, we're making sure we do the homework," McCord said.

McCord said the district is also deciding how often the tape might be monitored or if it would be reviewed only if an incident occurred. McCord said he thinks the cameras will help provide a safe environment for students, though he knows it's not a cure-all.

Behavior problems may still happen, though he has noted that the number of incidents so far this year is small. McCord said there have only been 22 reported incidents of hitting or pushing this school year, a small number considering that about 15,000 students ride buses each day.

"Putting cameras on buses is a proactive measure," he said, "but we're not looking to deceive anyone into thinking that if we place cameras on buses all will be solved."

Related content

  1. Superintendent timeline set; bus cameras still a possibility for Beaufort County; Sept. 25, 2012
  2. Beaufort County School District could vote to install cameras on buses; Sept. 18, 2012
  3. Mom who wants bus cameras sues Beaufort County School District, bus company; Sept. 17, 2012
  4. School board committee to consider bus cameras; Sept. 9, 2012
  5. Parent starts petition for school-bus cameras; Aug. 28, 2012