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Boston schools backtrack on recording audio on buses

As a new school year begins Thursday, Boston school officials have decided they will only record images — and not voices and other sounds — when they turn on more than 650 surveillance cameras installed on all school buses.

Initially, school officials had planned to activate the microphones.But now, after some parents and civil liberties advocates raised concerns about potentially violating students’ right to privacy, the School Department is informing parents on its website that the audio recorders on the cameras won’t be activated.

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“If we decide there is value in audio, we will bring the issue before the School Committee and develop a policy to ensure student privacy,” said Lee McGuire, a School Department spokesman.

The surveillance cameras are among a number of changes in the way the school system provides transportation. A new transportation director, Jonathan Steketee, is at the helm, and 2,100 eighth-graders will be taking the T instead of boarding school buses as part of a cost-cutting endeavor.

City officials also attempted to assure families Wednesday that the school buses should run normally. That message, delivered at a news conference, came after hundreds of students destined for charter schools that have already begun classes were stranded last week when their buses failed to show up or were running woefully late.

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The disruption in service, which unfolded as the bus drivers union continues to negotiate a new contract, prompted some parents and city officials to worry that larger problems were on the horizon when most city schools open Thursday. Last year, bus drivers staged a one-day surprise stoppage that had families and school officials scrambling to find alternative transportation.

But by the end of last week, the bus routes were largely running on schedule.

‘If we decide there is value in audio, we will bring the issue before the School Committee and develop a policy.’

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“We had a little bump in the road last week, and we’ve had conversations since then and we’ve been assured by the union — the leadership and the membership — that we’re going to have smooth riding,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at the news conference Wednesday at the Maverick Blue Line station in East Boston.

School officials, however, are still warning parents to be patient with the buses, which tend to run behind schedule during the first few weeks of school as students and families adjust to routines and drivers deal with last-minute changes to their routes.

When students do climb aboard, it is unlikely they will spot the surveillance cameras unless they are looking for the devices. The cameras — small enough to fit in a hand — are affixed to the ceiling of the buses near the driver. Signs, however, will warn passengers about the cameras.

School officials announced in July they were installing the cameras to crack down on discipline issues and to ensure safe driving. Boston is among a growing number of large urban districts using them, but it remains unclear how many districts supplement the video footage with audio-recording features.

Some parents and advocacy groups applauded the decision by Boston school officials to keep the sound-recording elements turned off.

“It’s great they are not going to be recording the bus gossip of kids as they go to school,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

But she questioned whether using the surveillance cameras was necessary, saying “rarely is there a convincing argument made to the public that surveillance cameras will have a positive impact.”

Muting the audio recorders represents the second time this summer that school officials backed away from a transportation initiative. In July, school officials decided against putting seventh-graders on the T this fall, but they intend to do it next year.

School officials delayed the move amid growing opposition from parents, elected officials, and education advocates and questions from the MBTA about whether the transit system could adequately absorb all the students.

The backtracking comes with a price. Initially, the school system estimated $8 million in annual savings by providing T passes to seventh- and eighth-graders instead of transporting them on buses. But the savings has since dropped to $2 million by limiting the change to only eighth-graders.

To allay safety concerns among students and parents, more than 50 school employees wearing blue vests and City Year members clad in their traditional red jackets will work as “safety ambassadors” at key MBTA hubs, where they will assist students with questions.

Speaking at the news conference, MBTA general manager Beverly Scott said, “We are going to do everything we can to make this extremely successful.”

Andy Rosen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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