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How dependable are bus cameras?

A school bus security device fails to record wild student behavior. The driver may be fired.

By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published March 12, 2007


INVERNESS - No one can say for sure what, if anything, the security camera on your child's bus will record on any given day.

That's because the Citrus school system doesn't have enough staff or expertise to make sure that every camera on every bus is working properly.

District officials discussed the problem last week after a story in the Citrus Times raised questions about why a camera wasn't working on a bus where some high school students were out of control.

The camera on Bus 4895 malfunctioned and failed to record several incidents of sexual misconduct over a period of months. The driver, Don Allender, 64, might lose his job. He's challenging his firing, saying he tried to prevent the incidents, but the students were too wild.

District officials said Friday that even if the camera on Allender's bus had worked, he would still face termination. They say he violated district policy by failing to report the sexual behavior, which the driver has admitted. In one case, a high school girl flashed her breasts at the driver and other students.

Nevertheless, the case raises questions about the level of confidence that the public and school officials can place on bus security cameras.

How reliable are these cameras? What happens if a serious allegation is made and the camera tape was blank? How can authorities know who's telling the truth?

District officials say instances when cameras on buses malfunction are rare. But they acknowledge that if one breaks down, they have no way of knowing until it's too late.

"There are hundreds of issues we solve when we have a tape," said Mike Mullen, the district's executive director of support services. "The only time it becomes an issue is that one time when the camera isn't working."

Mullen said his staffers would have to pull the tapes from every bus and review their contents every day to be certain that every camera is working properly.

The district doesn't have the time or the staff to do that every day or even every 30 days, when mechanics perform regular inspections on the buses.

That's because the district switched to digital cameras last year and hasn't trained enough people how to operate them, said Marilyn Farmer, the district's supervisor of transportation.

Farmer said there are 230 school buses with digital cameras, but only one person at each bus garage is trained to use the cameras.

"It's not like we can walk up and push a button and the camera starts recording," she said. "It's more technical."

The district switched to digital cameras despite lacking trained staff because the cameras can record up to two weeks of footage. The old security cameras, which used video casettes, only stored six hours of footage.

"That the expanded time was the real selling point for us," she said.

Farmer acknowledged the transition hasn't been smooth. "We're trying to catch up," she said. More staffers are being trained. A system is being developed so individual schools can access and review bus footage from their own campuses.

Like Mullen, Farmer is aware that cameras are essential to settle any allegation of wrongdoing on a bus.

"I want to be able to prove or disprove an accusation to know whether to discipline someone," she said. "We get very upset when there is no video."

When that happens, she said, "it becomes a 'he said, she said' " and "there is only so much you can do."

In the case of Bus 4895, the School Board can expect a challenge from Allender.

"The equipment which could have helped substantiate the facts, has failed me," he wrote in response to the district's findings that he failed to live up to his job responsibilities. "There is only me, and 26 students who can make up tales and twist the truth to make me look bad."

The board will meet Tuesday and is expected to decide Allender's fate.

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.