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updated: 1/30/2011 8:53 PM

Cameras in buses, schools growing more common

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  • There is a camera near the ceiling in the rear of this First Student bus in Naperville.

       There is a camera near the ceiling in the rear of this First Student bus in Naperville.
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer

  • This camera keeps an eye on the front of this First Student bus in Naperville. Many of the buses at Fist Student sport video cameras to keep an eye on children.

       This camera keeps an eye on the front of this First Student bus in Naperville. Many of the buses at Fist Student sport video cameras to keep an eye on children.
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer

  • There are two cameras mounted against the ceiling in the front of this First Student bus in Naperville.

       There are two cameras mounted against the ceiling in the front of this First Student bus in Naperville.
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer

  • This is a close-up view of a camera mounted near the ceiling in the rear of this First Student bus in Naperville.

       This is a close-up view of a camera mounted near the ceiling in the rear of this First Student bus in Naperville.
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer

 
By Kristy Kennedy
Daily Herald correspondent

Two nightmare scenarios involving school buses occurred in Naperville on the same day.

In one case, a driver made a 13-year-old middle school student who didn't normally ride his bus get off -- midway through the ride to school. In the second, a driver pulled the bus over and exposed himself to a fifth-grade special education student. Those events, which happened in spring 2009, were among the factors prompting Indian Prairie District 204 to push for installation of cameras and GPS systems on every bus this school year.

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"From our perspective, we're looking at safety," said Karla Zozulia, director of support services. "There's a lot of technology out there that we're using to make our students safer."

Similarly, schools throughout the suburbs and the nation increasingly use video surveillance in schools and on buses.

It's a phenomenon many have come to expect in the wake of such events as the Winnetka school shootings in the late 1980s by Laurie Dann, and the 1999 Columbine school killings, said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.

"We have so decreased the expectation of privacy and increased the expectation of safety," Stephens said. "It's just a sign of the times."

In fact after Columbine, federal money and other grants spurred schools to add cameras and to give police access to video feeds in emergencies.

"More schools looked at security-related equipment to see if it could supplement their safety programs," said Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security.

Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire plans to continue to install cameras throughout the school as funds become available. They cause little disruption, says David Saxe, assistant principal of operations and program support.

"For most students, the cameras go unnoticed," Saxe said. "They help prevent issues and monitor what is going on in the halls."

Officials at Barrington Unit District 220 agree that cameras provide a degree of safety in the schools. Bus cameras added three years ago have been a deterrent for troublemakers, said Dean of Students and District Safety Coordinator Austin Johnson.

"They give you that extra eye in the sky to see what is going on," he said. "We can see who is poking holes in a seat or throwing things and we can get a sense of the noise level on the bus." Especially helpful are the audio recordings made by the cameras, allowing school officials to hear what students are saying to each other. "It does help you to get to the complete bottom of a story," Johnson said.

As an added benefit, the cameras promote safer driving by monitoring bus speed and capturing the drivers' actions as well.

Cameras also have been used to solve student disputes, to check out reports of bullying and as evidence in criminal cases. Recently, Johnson said, camera recordings were used to locate a student's missing coat. Johnson could see the girl leaving it in the cafeteria and spotted a teacher picking it up.

In Naperville, school officials have used footage for everyday issues like figuring out what happened to a missing backpack, solving a vandalism case or mediating disputes.

"When there is a dispute between students, we can sort it out faster if the camera is in the right place at the right time and they typically are," said Mike Popp, former principal of Neuqua Valley High School and current District 204 director of school improvement and planning.

District 204 and Naperville Unit District 203 both have cameras on their buses and in their high schools. Privacy policies call for the cameras to record all the time, but they are not monitored. Digital recordings are pulled when there is a need. For instance, camera footage was used to press charges against a student involved in a 2007 fight in Naperville North High School's cafeteria and in 2005 to uncover the identity of a man walking naked through Neuqua Valley's hallways on weekends when an outside group was using the school.

Bus cameras are an important part of safety plans for the Naperville districts, which transport thousands of students daily.

"The cameras help pick up the slack," said Dave Zager, chief financial officer in District 203. "If there is a behavior problem, we can look at it after the fact."

District 204 recently used video to help a driver settle down his rowdy bus. While monitoring the behavior of a particular student, officials noticed the driver was having a hard time gaining control.

"He was a good driver with a challenging route," Zozulia said. "We used the video as a training tool to work with the driver so that he could be more interactive with the kids. It made a big difference."

District 204 also uses GPS to track a bus route and verify bus stop times. Not only does that appease parents with students who miss the bus, but it also allows the bus company to tweak routes by seeing in real time how long it takes for buses to reach their stops.

In the 2009 criminal case of the bus driver exposing himself to a student, the GPS stamp was used as evidence to corroborate the statement of a witness who reported seeing the bus pulled over.

School safety experts agree the use of technology from cameras to GPS systems can be valuable for schools, but they also have some words of caution. As an example, Trump mentioned high seat backs in buses preventing cameras from capturing everything.

That was the case in Gurnee Elementary District 56 when a 12-year-old boy allegedly sexually assaulted a 3-year-old girl in August. The bus driver was unaware of what was happening in the back of the bus and the cameras were unable to record the entire event because of the seats. The case is ongoing.

Despite all the pluses, security cameras will not solve every crisis.

"Parents want some tangible guarantee that it won't happen again and it's easy to throw in cameras," Trump said. "You can put in the technology, but then you have to set reasonable expectations. It's an extra tool but not a guarantee."

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