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  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Ron Jennings of Gatekeeper Systems Inc. installs new high-resolution cameras and audio equipment on a buses in Twin Rivers Unified’s transportation yard last month. Gatekeeper’s CEO said the company is getting more interest in live-streaming cameras for school buses.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    This Twin Rivers Unified School District bus has new audio recording equipment and four high-resolution cameras like this one. The district is spending $257,000 to outfit all of its buses with recording systems that can be monitored in real time to address such problems as bullying or angry parents.

Sacramento-area school buses go high-tech

Published: Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am

Within weeks, nearly 2,000 students boarding buses in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District will be able to swipe a card over a bar-code reader that is linked to GPS tracking.

With that one action, the students on any of the district’s 78 buses will enter a new age of security tracking. Each swipe will tell the school district – and, ultimately, inquiring parents – where and when a child got on or off the school bus.

“We get calls saying, ‘We can’t find Johnny,’” said Joe Jenkins, the district’s chief technology officer. “We can tell them, ‘Johnny got off at bus stop 24 at Smith and Main.’”

After California public schools struggled the past few years just to keep classrooms staffed, budget increases fueled by the economy and higher taxes have enabled area districts this year to upgrade their transportation technology.

Across town from Folsom Cordova, Twin Rivers Unified School District workers are installing a digital video and audio recording system on the district’s buses.

“We have a live GPS, which allows us in the event of an emergency ... to log in and cue up what’s going on and pinpoint exactly where the bus is,” said Tim Shannon, transportation supervisor for Twin Rivers.

If there is bullying on the back of the bus, he said, the driver will be able to notify transportation headquarters via two-way radio. The onboard audio and video can be viewed remotely in real time, Shannon said. If trouble breaks out, drivers can mark the spot in the recording for quick review later.

Shannon said he doesn’t think the dangers to kids have increased, but that “there’s a heightened awareness in society now for safety. And we are always looking to have our buses provide a safer environment for students.”

Gatekeeper Systems Inc. of British Columbia is supplying Twin Rivers with 120 buses as part of a $257,000 contract. The company’s CEO, Doug Dyment, said his firm is getting more interest in live-streaming cameras. He said they can help districts “anytime where there might be a threat of a takeover of a bus or a driver in trouble.”

The upgrades may affect a shrinking segment of students, given how dramatically districts have shrunk their bus operations.

At Twin Rivers, only about 30 percent of the district’s nearly 27,000 students ride school buses, Shannon said. At Natomas Unified, ridership is lower – about 5 percent of the district’s 10,000 students. And at Folsom Cordova, only about 10 percent of the district’s 19,000 students ride the bus.

That doesn’t eliminate the need to ensure that students board the correct bus and arrive at the right campus.

At Folsom Cordova, Synovia Solutions of Indianapolis is supplying the student bar-code card system along with a GPS route management and tracking system for the district’s 78 buses under a five-year, $211,000 contract.

More advanced technology soon will be available that can alert bus drivers when a child gets on the wrong bus or off at the wrong school, said Woody Fitzmaurice, business development executive for Synovia. One of the difficulties very young children can have, Fitzmaurice said, is knowing what bus to board for the trip home.

“With the new technology, Jimmy gets on the bus, swipes the card, and that youngster’s identification goes to a tablet which looks up the card and says Jimmy is supposed to be on bus 22,” he said.

That advance might have been helpful last April when a substitute driver for Natomas Unified mistakenly dropped a 6-year-old autistic boy at the wrong elementary campus. Natomas officials investigated and made changes, said district spokesman Jim Sanders. Bus drivers have been trained in proper hand-off procedures at schools and to family members or their designees when transporting special-education students, he said.

The district also purchased a bus-routing system that, once operational, could include a card-swiping system to record student travel. Discussions about adding that capability are underway, Sanders said.

Elk Grove Unified, with a fleet of 180 buses, has had cameras for years, said Jill Gayaldo, district director of transportation. But those relied on outdated VHS technology. Upgrades to digital cameras began about a dozen years ago. The district in July purchased equipment to outfit 40 remaining buses for $50,000, Gayaldo said.

“We really don’t have too many issues with kids on buses,” she said. She called the cameras an effective deterrent.

At Folsom Cordova, one parent said she was intrigued by the concept of card readers that track when kids get on and off buses. And it’s just a matter of time and budget, district officials say, before the system is modified so parents can track the same information via the Internet.

“I think anything that keeps our kids safe is a good thing,” said Michelle Flowers, who has three children in the Folsom Cordova district and is a principal at a private elementary school in Folsom. “I would definitely want to know more. I would be curious to know exactly what features this has.”

At Twin Rivers, transportation officials say they’ve learned the value of improved systems. A year ago, an angry parent boarded a bus with a “threatening demeanor,” Shannon said. That case reinforced the idea that a real-time monitoring system would be valuable, he said. In such cases, a driver could alert district officials, who could monitor the situation and summon help if needed.

“We just felt that it benefited the students greatly to be able to have some sort of security on the bus,” Shannon said.

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073.

Read more articles by Loretta Kalb

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