When Boston students board their school buses this fall, they may want to watch what they say and do.
Boston is equipping all of its 750 school buses with cameras and microphones, enabling school officials to more thoroughly investigate reports of bullying, other disciplinary issues, and even traffic accidents.
Each bus will be equipped with two cameras contained in a single unit mounted to the ceiling. One camera will point to the passenger area. The other will be directed at the windshield and will record what the driver sees on the road, providing potentially useful information in case of an accident.
Carl Allen, the School Department’s transportation director, said no single incident prompted the high-tech monitoring.
“It’s just a recognition that there are incidents and accidents that occur every year,” Allen said. “And we have a strong desire to have more data so we can more quickly respond and ensure the safety of our kids and employees.”
Boston will join a growing number of school systems around the state and across the country that have been installing bus cameras to crack down on discipline issues and to ensure safe driving. Some districts, such as the Howard County public schools in Maryland, introduced cameras as part of an antibullying campaign.
In other cases, legislatures spurred action. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania updated its laws on cameras on school buses to allow for audio recordings and compliance with state wire-tapping rules.
“School districts have increasingly turned to technological strategies to handle these issues,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a research and advocacy organization for large urban systems. “School districts want to make sure kids are safe on their way to and from school and not just in school.”
The use of the cameras often sparks debate, pitting safety concerns against privacy rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union says the installation of recording equipment on school buses creates a culture of fear akin to being in prison. Students will ride the school bus knowing every word they say is being monitored, said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
“I think that is profoundly disturbing and sends a wrong message,” Crockford said. “I think schools and the school bus should be places where students can express themselves without fear of censor.”
But the Anti-Defamation League, which has worked to curb school bullying, sees the cameras as a powerful tool to investigate cases of bullying that can be complicated to untangle.
“It’s very clear that BPS is doing this because they have students’ best interest at heart,” said Robert Trestan, the New England regional director for the ADL. “What happens on a school bus inevitably has an impact in the classroom.”
For the most part, Boston school officials say students behave well on the buses. The school system transports more than 30,000 students a day to both public and private schools.
During the past school year, drivers wrote up about 5,600 incident reports documenting misconduct by students, such as swearing, refusing to sit down, throwing items out the window, vandalizing property, or bothering others.
Allen said he hopes the presence of cameras might deter some of that behavior.
“As litigious as things can get, to have cameras is par for the course in big school districts,” Allen said.
The system will cost about $275,000 annually for the next four years, which covers the purchasing of the equipment and the data service.
Boston is installing a sophisticated system produced by SmartDrive Systems, a San Diego company that makes video and data recording equipment for commercial vehicles.
If a student acts up, for instance, a driver can press a button and the system will automatically e-mail the footage to transportation supervisors, who will then forward the information to a school principal or, if necessary, law enforcement to investigate.
Transportation supervisors also can go into the system after an incident and view footage. The cameras keep up to 180 hours of footage before it is deleted. Beyond those features, the device also aims to improve the fuel efficiency and performance of the drivers, noting when drivers accelerate excessively, slam on brakes, or make hard turns.
School officials stress that no one is sitting in a room monitoring students remotely as they ride the buses.
The school bus drivers’ union, which raised objections a few years ago when the school system equipped buses with GPS units, could not be reached for comment.
Little if any public debate has arisen over the cameras in Boston, although the decision has not been widely publicized.
School officials decided to pursue the measure last year when they sought a new transportation company to operate Boston’s fleet of buses, and they announced at Wednesday’s School Committee meeting that the cameras would be operational this fall. Signs will be posted on the buses alerting passengers that the cameras will be recording both images and audio, a requirement under state wire-tapping laws.
In interviews, some parents and students expressed unease about the plans.
“My son rode the bus for three years without any incident that would indicate this is needed,” said Bob Goodman of Jamaica Plain, whose son is entering the fourth grade this fall. “When you talk about a million-dollar investment over the next four years and the underfunded areas in the district, it raises questions about priorities.”
Goodman said he would prefer that the money be spent on employing full-time nurses and libraries for all the schools and teacher assistants to help reduce student-teacher ratios.
Nathan Tran-Trinh, a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council who works on transportation issues, said he was torn on the issue.
“I’m usually against security cameras because they can be an invasion of privacy,” said Tran-Trinh, of West Roxbury, a junior at Boston Latin School. “I think using cameras on school buses should be a last resort.”