Officials discuss need for school bus stop-arm cameras

Herald file photo by Dave Weatherwax

By CANDY NEAL
cneal@dcherald.com

Vehicles that ignore the flashing red lights and stop arm extending from a school bus can put the bus riders — children — in danger.

Having cameras capture the violations would lead to more people getting caught, and hopefully, to less drivers violating that law, officials representing the county’s four school districts told the Dubois County Commissioners on Monday.

“There’s been a lot of happenings with people running stop arms,” Northeast Dubois Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said. “It is really a significant problem.”

“Currently we have many violators of stop arms every week,” Greater Jasper Superintendent Tracy Lorey told the commissioners. “Our bus drivers don’t have the ability to give us the appropriate information to identify and to actually prosecute those individuals who violate that law, because they’re driving the bus, they’re watching for traffic, they’re monitoring the students.”

The cameras cost money, and it’s money the districts don’t have, the school officials said. They asked the county to reimburse each school district for outfitting three or four of their buses. The maximum amount per bus would be $1,800, Hochgesang said. So it would cost about $22,000 to cover cameras for 12 buses, he said.

“What we would like to do is provide some of our most troubled areas with stop-arm cameras on those buses,” he said.

The state Legislature passed a law last year allowing schools to request reimbursement for installing the cameras, Hochgesang said. The school districts can ask the county or townships to provide the reimbursement. The state also allows counties to collect funding through successful prosecution of a violation and put that money into a safe school fund, which school officials asked to be created.

“The county basically gets reimbursed through the prosecution of those cases,” Hochgesang said.

County Prosecutor Anthony Quinn said that having that video evidence could help lead to more prosecuted cases. “The hardest part in prosecuting is identifying the person,” he said. “And these cameras would enhance or give us a better ability to identify the person committing these violations.”

But, that does not mean the violator would definitely pay the fine, Quinn said. The court can charge a person convicted of a stop-arm violation between $200 and $1,000, read from the statute.

Hochgesang said the cameras would take three photos: one of the vehicle passing the stop arm, a picture of the driver and a picture of the license plate.

“The more you capture, the more we prosecute, the less incidents are going to occur. And that’s really what we’re wanting,” Hochgesang said, “less incidents of running our stop arms because of the safety of our children.”

The Southwest Dubois County School Corporation is the only district that has a bus outfitted with a school bus stop-arm camera, and it has helped with catching two violators, District Transportation Director Kelly Murphy said.

In one incident, “I was able to watch that whole situation,” he said. “We got the license plate; we got facial recognition. So then I called our [school resource officer], and he went and wrote a ticket.“

In the other incident, children were just let off the bus, but they stopped before crossing in front of the bus to cross the street.

“Thankfully our kids are trained to stop when they cross. Before they cross, they stop at the right and wait for a signal from the bus driver,” Murphy said. “A car came flying through. Two seconds, he could have killed three kids.”

A police officer just happened to be near, and caught the driver.

Jamie Pund, superintendent for the Southeast Dubois County School Corporation said that drivers call in to the school corporation office via the bus radio to report an incident, and the office contacts law enforcement.

“But when your description is, ‘It was someone in a red vehicle,’ it makes it very challenging for law enforcement to be able to identify who that person is,” she said. “Whereas, we have this, it would capture a license plate number and then you can go a step further.”

Each year, the Indiana Department of Transportation has all school districts in the state count the number of stop-arm violations that happen on one particular day in April each year. The 2019 total for the state was 2,653, Hochgesang said. It was 3,082 for 2018; 2,280 for 2017; and 2,950 for 2016, he said.

Lorey mentioned that the buses that travel on Newton Street and State Road 56 are the ones that her school district would want to have cameras on first. “Those are areas that are quite dangerous for kids getting on and off the school bus,” she said. Hochgesang also identified for his district the buses that run on U.S. 231 and State Road 56, as well as State Road 164.

The commissioners voted 2 to 1 to recommend that the Dubois County Council provide the initial reimbursement and establish a safe school fund.

Commissioner Chad Blessinger, who voted no, said that he sees the need for the cameras, but he doesn’t support the idea of the county paying to reimburse the cost for the first round of them.

“I hate to vote against something like this, because I support the idea. But the county has to have priorities, like the school corporation,” he said. “I guess my priority would be making sure we have enough money for the corrections rehabilitation project that have going on.”

He asked why the districts couldn’t pay for the cameras themselves. The school districts do not have enough money to pay for the cameras from their transportation funds, Hochgesang said. There are other big expenses that depend on the fund, like fuel costs, compensation for bus drivers and school bus expenses, he explained.

Blessinger also said that he felt the townships could cover this cost. “They’re sitting on a lot of reserves,” he said.

“Unlike the townships,” Commissioner Elmer Brames said, “the county has the ability to recapture those funds. I don’t think that can be transferred into the township funds.”

Commissioner Nick Hostetter said he supported creating the fund and supports the school officials asking the county council for the upfront reimbursement funding.

“I think the law was written for that reason,” he said. “They know the schools are strapped.”

Blessinger said he could support creating the fund, and letting money collect in it. He said he just doesn’t support “this upfront money.”




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