Inside Report: EBR installing cameras on school buses

After a rocky start, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is finally making extensive use of a new camera system meant to curtail people who illegally blow through bus stops, but also to catch student misbehavior and bus driver poor performance.

As of early October, the cameras had been installed on 238 of the 650-bus fleet, and the plan is to eventually have them on all buses. Over a two-year period, almost $62,000 had been collected in fines with more coming. That number was based on almost 2,800 citations issued. In the past month, another 900 citations have been issued.

The traffic cameras are being supplied and installed by a Harahan company called Force Multiplier Solutions. The company pays for all costs, including the monitoring of the video, in return for collecting 70 percent of the ticket money. The school system receives 20 percent, and the Sheriff’s Office, which has to decide whether the evidence is strong enough to issue a ticket, receives 10 percent.

The program began in late 2011, but few cameras were installed at first. Then Transportation Director Bill Talmadge retired abruptly in October 2012 after the problems came to light. Purchasing Director Gary Reese then assumed Talmadge’s job.

In a Nov. 14 interview, Reese said Force Multiplier has put installations on hold as it shifts to using a more advanced camera, but he hopes they resume soon.

“I have some drivers asking for them,” Reese said.

For drivers, the recordings from those cameras, especially those from the interior of the bus, are a ready way to resolve disputes. He said he’s had dozens of requests for videos so far, many of them from drivers.

In a presentation to the School Board on Oct. 3, Reese said the new system is a significant improvement over past camera systems. Each bus is equipped with up to eight exterior cameras, as well as three interior cameras. The three interior cameras include one near the rear; in the past, interior bus cameras were all at the front.

The buses also have GPS locators that record real-time location data.

“I’m able to look at the track of bus, see what time they were getting to the stops and also what the speed was anywhere along the track,” Reese said.

Other available features include an alert switch for drivers to send out a distress text or email in an emergency — that hasn’t been used yet, Reese said — as well as real-time monitoring of a moving bus.

The GPS tracking data help with resolving a common complaint that the bus didn’t show up on time.

“We had an incident recently that proved the bus was there in the window of time. The mother asked me whose clock was that,” he said. “I said it’s coming off the satellite. It’s basically the federal government’s time.”

Whether motorists are changing their behavior and respecting bus stops is unclear.

“I don’t have any baseline for that,” Reese said.

One proposed use of the fine money is to equip buses with Wi-Fi, enabling students to study and complete online assignments on the way to and from school, but Reese said so far no onboard Wi-Fi systems have been installed.

Board member David Tatman, who opposes traffic cameras in general, has pressed for a public information campaign explaining the law against running bus stops, saying it would do more to make the public safe.

Reese, however, said there are no plans currently for such a campaign.

Charles Lussier writes about education in East Baton Rouge Parish for The Advocate. He can be reached at clussier@theadvocate.com.