2018 | Bethesda Beat

Safety Cameras Helping Curb Danger Inside and Outside of MCPS Buses

Technology helps officials investigate crimes, disciplinary issues

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An investment by Montgomery County Public Schools to keep students safe on buses is reaping more rewards than school officials anticipated.

The Montgomery County Council’s Education Committee on Thursday approved the appropriation of $4.7 million to supplement the ongoing School Bus Camera Safety initiative in an effort to thwart dangerous driving around buses.

The money was generated from revenue that has been collected from citations issued to drivers who fail to stop for buses with flashing lights activated and stop arms extended. All $4.7 million will be used to reimburse the district’s contractor Bus Patrol America for technology that has already been installed, according to council documents.

Cameras are installed on the outside of 500 buses, leading to more than 50,000 citations since 2016 for failing to stop for buses displaying a stop arm while collecting or discharging students. But possibly just as beneficial are the cameras installed on the inside, which have recently helped prosecute criminal activity and assisted with student disciplinary investigations.

In August, former MCPS bus driver Etienne Kabongo was charged with sexually abusing four students on his bus route between May and July.

Authorities first began investigating a case of alleged abuse based on a parent’s complaint, according to school officials. The alleged assault was captured by a school bus camera.

“It helped with the incident with the bus driver, and we’ve seen videos of fights on the bus, students vandalizing the seats and more,” school board member Pat O’Neill of Bethesda said during the committee meeting . “As horrifying and shocking the exterior situations , it’s equally important having the interior video.”

While police do not actively monitor the cameras or their footage, officers are able to obtain video if an issue arises or an investigation is conducted, Montgomery County police Capt. Thomas Didone told the committee .

“The cameras are supposed to deter behavior inside the bus like they do outside and I’m hoping they will deter more on the bus, but when tragedies occur … I’m glad we have that video because it proves beyond a reasonable doubt and makes prosecution easier,” Didone said.

School officials said video footage is only stored for a few weeks, but the district is looking into options to store footage long-term.

Committee Chair Craig Rice applauded the cameras, noting they add a layer of security for students who are bullied. Rather than using a “he-said-she-said” approach to bullying allegations, school officials can review footage and decode the situation based on body language and other physical clues.

“When you can look back … it gives the ability for our children to be protected,” Rice said. “It’s not just about discipline, it’s about fixing some of the problems that are already there.”

Five hundred buses in the county are equipped with safety cameras and travel what police have determined to be the most problematic routes, with 400 additional buses to be outfitted by the end of 2018. In total, all of the district’s 1,350 buses will be equipped by the start of the 2018-2019 school year.