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Grandma: Buses need cameras, but school officials say money is tight

POSTED: October 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Chestatee middle-schooler Taylor Martin, 13, exits the school bus while her aunt, Mimi Smith, waits at Forrest Drive. After a recent confrontation between Taylor and another bus passenger, Smith and Taylor's mother and grandmother are upset that operating cameras aren't on every Hall County school bus.

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Video cameras are strategically placed in the classrooms, hallways and school yards of Hall County schools.

A recent altercation on a school bus involving her middle school-aged granddaughter has Judith Sims wondering why cameras aren’t installed on buses recording the actions of children on their commutes to and from school.

"A high school girl slapped a middle school girl on the bus, and that girl happened to be my granddaughter," Sims said.

When Sims went to Chestatee Middle School to obtain video footage of the incident on the bus, she said she was shocked to find that there was no footage. The camera on the bus didn’t work.

"The bus driver said she didn’t, quote, see it. If a camera had been rolling, it’d be there in black and white," Sims said. "The camera would be the eyes in the back of their head. I’m furious about this."

Nearly 22,000 students regularly ride Hall County school buses, and many buses carry up to 89 students at a time.

Jewel Armour, executive director of transportation for Hall County schools, said all Hall County school buses likely did have cameras at one point, but now the system doesn’t have the funds to repair some of the old broken cameras on buses.

"(Bus drivers) are not going to see everything, and we know that. But they have to report what they do see. We rely on our drivers, too. For years and years there was no such thing as cameras on buses," he said. "... There is no law requiring buses to have cameras."

Armour said students who disobey bus rules automatically are suspended from bus-riding privileges for five days.

Of the school system’s 214 buses, Armour said at least 24 have been equipped with new digital camera systems that cost upward of $1,500. But even the new cameras sometimes fail to function, he said, and the old ones are difficult to repair locally.

"I know several that do not work," Armour said. "... You don’t know that it’s not recording until you bring it in to look at a videotape like this incident, and then when you get ready to pull it up, it’s not there. It didn’t record."

Jerry Castleberry, director of transportation for Gainesville schools, said all 46 of the city system’s operating school buses have working cameras mounted above the bus driver’s seat.

Armour said ideally, the Hall County school system would have every bus outfitted with cameras to ensure the safety of all children, but the system is trying to trim its budget to absorb pending cuts from the state.

The Hall County school system stands to lose roughly $2.5 million in state funding this year. And Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield said he expects the system will have to cut an additional $10 million from its budget next year.

Armour said new cameras for school buses were included in this fiscal year’s budget, which began July 1, but state cuts are forcing school districts to reprioritize. Armour said he has yet to determine whether cameras will be installed on the 19 new Hall County school buses acquired this year.

"That’s just a place we can cut that doesn’t affect the classroom," Armour said.

But Sims said safety should be No. 1, and that means cameras on buses.

"Our children are our most precious cargo. I think this is one of the higher priorities (the school system) should have on their list," she said.

Schofield said he wasn’t aware that some cameras on buses were not working. As a result of the school system’s uncertain budget situation, Schofield said replacing cameras on buses may or may not be a top priority.

"Every penny we spend in the future is going to have to be run through that same litmus test. That’s something we’re all going to have to sit around the table and decide," he said.

"It certainly is important, and I wouldn’t want to minimize that. But like everything else, we’re going to have to make some hard decisions."



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