(TNS) — Beginning Oct. 1, drivers who pass a San Antonio Independent School District bus when its “stop arm” is deployed will be ticketed and face a $300 fine — whether or not a police officer happens to be there to see it.
SAISD this summer installed exterior and interior cameras on all 200 of its non-athletics buses, at no cost to the district, under a contract with American Traffic Solutions. The exterior cameras, which point to the front and back of the buses, automatically photograph passing vehicles once the bus extends its flashing stop signs. SAISD will keep 15 percent of the money collected from citations this year, an amount that will gradually increase to 35 percent.
SAISD will begin issuing warning citations as early as Thursday, said Nathan Graf, the district’s senior executive director of transportation and vehicle maintenance.
“It’s not about collecting the money,” Graf said. “It’s about educating the community.”
The district’s first day of classes was Aug. 13, and Monday marked the first day for Northside and North East ISDs, the two largest districts in Bexar County. State law requires motorists headed in either direction to stop for school buses when their lights are flashing and stop arms are out, unless the drivers are on the other side of a grass or concrete median.
Bus drivers have consistently complained to SAISD officials about drivers who ignore the requirement and endanger students, Graf said. The district solicited bids last fall from bus camera companies and chose the Arizona-based ATS. The license plates of the offending vehicles, captured on video, allow identification of the owner, who gets the citation.
City Council members this summer had talked about repealing the 2016 ordinance that allows private contractors with bus camera systems to issue $300 civil citations on behalf of school districts. Some voiced concerns over the lack of a clear appeals process for drivers who receive the citations. The issue is not on the agenda for this week’s public safety committee meeting.
The ordinance prohibits school districts and their contractors from using legal means to enforce the collection of the fines. Under state law, police can cite drivers for passing stopped school buses, with fines ranging up to $1,250.
The SAISD board of trustees approved the contract with ATS in May. A different company, the Dallas-based BusGuard, folded last year while owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to local school districts. SAISD’s contract with ATS stipulates that the school district will receive the citation revenue and ATS will invoice SAISD for its share. ATS works with 25 school districts in five states, including Austin ISD.
BusGuard, when it collapsed, owed $600,000 to North East ISD alone. NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said the district has not decided whether to contract with BusPatrol, the company formed by investors who licensed the technology in Canada to revive the BusGuard program.
“Any measures to make buses safer for students is something we are in favor of,” Chancellor said. “We wish the ordinance had more teeth.”
Drivers cited by SAISD can contest their citations by requesting administrative hearings with an officer contracted by the district, and can appeal that officer’s ruling to the school district superintendent, said Lt. Stan Slate of the SAISD Police Department.
The buses also were outfitted with another set of exterior cameras that can be used to investigate accidents and show whether bus drivers are stopping where required, Graf said. Cameras inside the buses capture every seat, and school administrators can review footage for disciplinary purposes in the event of bullying, fights or other incidents, Graf said.
SAISD police and transportation officials can review real-time footage from their computers, which could prove especially useful in crises, Graf said. The new equipment allows bus drivers to trigger “silent alarms,” inaudible on their buses, that alert dispatchers to emergencies.
Preschool and elementary school students will also be given badges to record when they get on and off the buses, ensuring they are on the correct bus and leave it at the appropriate stops, Graf said.
ATS is also expected to equip all buses with WiFi by the end of the school year, at no cost, extending SAISD’s partnership with Bexar County’s digital library, BiblioTech. Only seven of SAISD’s buses last year had WiFi. Students on such buses can borrow books or listen to audiobooks from the digital library.
“It keeps them quiet on the bus,” Graf said. “It keeps them engaged in activity, which allows the driver to focus on the road.”
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