The District 97 Board of Education has dropped language in its transportation policy giving the superintendent authority to have video cameras placed on school buses without giving prior notification to the board.

Some Dist. 97 buses, however, already have cameras on them.

A section of policy 8600, which governs transportation-related issues, would have allowed the board to authorize the superintendent to “install and operate video cameras on district buses to enhance student safety and well-being.”

A first reading of the policy took place Nov. 15 during the board’s policy review portion of its regular meeting. The policy was not adopted and will get a second reading tonight.

The section concerning cameras was removed because of board members’ concerns that the superintendent should bring such a request directly to the board instead of having the sole authority to install cameras on school buses.

“If there was a need to do that, then that is something we would want [Supt. Constance] Collins to contact the board with before going ahead and pursuing it,” said policy committee and school board member Julie Blankemeier. “It’s not that we don’t trust her judgment; it’s just something that we feel should be brought to the board.”

Blankemeier said the policy change was part of the board’s regular policy review. It was not, she said, brought up because of any current incident involving student safety on buses. She also said the issue was not a high priority for the board.

Lakeview Bus Company is currently contracted to provide 40 buses for regular education, special education and early childhood students. Lakeview has provided bus service to the district for about 15 years, said Dawn Johnson, the company’s owner. They also provide bus service for other school districts, including the Chicago Academy of the Arts.

Currently, six cameras are installed on 11 of the district’s regular education, or “big” buses, said Johnson. Cameras were first installed on buses eight years ago. At that time, the company decided to install cameras on regular ed buses only, said Johnson, noting that the cameras were added to monitor student activity. With only the driver and no other adult on the big buses, it was difficult for the driver to keep an eye on students while driving, she said.

The cameras operate on a continuous recording system where once the tapes reaches its end, they stop, rewind and begin recording again. If there are any discipline or safety issues during the ride, the driver is required to turn the tape over to a district administrator.

Since the cameras were first installed, Johnson said, there has only been one instance where a tape was turned in by a driver.

“It was more of a concern with the noise level and how that can disturb the driver. As far as fighting, no,” she said, adding that some of the cameras were stolen a few years ago and were never replaced. The remaining ones were upgraded.

“When students are taken on trips to a museum or something like that, and the bus driver gets off the bus, it’s usually not locked,” resulting in some camera thefts.

Johnson said the cameras originally cost about $900 each to install, and the price has since gone up. She said it was not a district requirement to have cameras, but was the company’s decision to originally install them.

Supt. Collins said she was superintendent in Zion Elementary School District 6, she did have the authority to place cameras on school buses, but that is not a priority in Dist. 97.

“We don’t anticipate a need for that, but it would be something that if there was a need, I would be able to move forward and make a recommendation to the board,” said Collins, adding that bus service for Zion’s elementary schools were provided by the Zion Benton Township High School District.

Clarifying bus discipline

The board, at its Nov. 16 meeting, also sought to clarify how discipline is administered on buses and who administers it.

Bus drivers are not responsible, the board agreed, for administering discipline, which is considered a consequence of infractions. Rather, drivers are asked only to maintain order on buses, said Collins.

“Definitely, discipline is something we want to think of in terms of an administrator,” said Collins. “If there is a problem on the bus, the bus driver would report it to the building principal. If it were an instance where children are unruly on the bus and endangering others, it would be reasonable for the driver to do what is necessary to protect those children on the bus because maintaining order is something we all have a responsibility for.”

Johnson said the company uses a write-up system where infractions are reported to an administrator. Then “it’s up to the school administrator to decide what steps are taken.”

Seatbelts not required on Illinois school buses

Contrary to popular beliefs, seatbelts on school buses in Illinois, and in a majority of other states, are not required.

Illinois does not mandate that school buses have seatbelts on them, said Dawn Johnson, owner of Lakeview Bus Company, which provides bus service for District 97.

Johnson said her company installed seatbelts on the district’s buses several years ago even though it was never mandated.

“We had them in before anyone asked because it made good sense,” she said.

Only five states-New York, California, Louisiana, New Jersey and Florida-have some form of seatbelt requirements for school buses. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 8,000 children a year are injured in bus-related accidents with an average of nine deaths occurring.

There has not been a recent incident of a Dist. 97 or 200 student having been injured in a bus accident. Johnson noted that in Illinois, the thought from officials is that the “compartmentalization” of buses-the large seats and how they’re placed-makes them safe for travel.

Johnson said she’s not sure why seatbelts aren’t mandated, but insisted that school buses, according to research, remain the safest way to travel to school.

“It’s very safe,” she said. “One kid being hurt is one too many, but it’s safer than flying and safer than anything else.”

-Terry Dean

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