Updated 3:57 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, with financial breakdown regarding payment for the school bus safety program.
NORWALK, Conn. – The safety of Norwalk’s school children – whether they are walking to the school bus or hunkering down in school due to some emergency – was a primary focus of the Norwalk Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening, where both Newtown-inspired school safety plans and a (free!) way to catch drivers who speed past stopped Norwalk school buses were discussed.
That’s right, free. The multi-camera system is expected to be installed on some Norwalk school buses – those traveling especially problematic routes – next fall, and will be paid for by the tickets issued by Norwalk Police.
Citations for passing a school bus are $450, board members said. State legislation was amended in 2010 to allow municipalities to keep 80 percent of that money. StudentGuardian, formerly known as Smart Bus, will handle all of the administrative needs in the system and be paid through those fees, said Dana Meinke, the company’s regional sales director.
According to StudentGuardian, the fine for passing a stopped school bus in Connecticut is $450 plus a $15 court processing fee for a total of $465. Of that, $54 goes to the Special Transportation Fund, $36 to the General Fund and $360 goes back to the municipality. StudentGuardian would receive 65 percent, or $234, of that to offset program costs including camera equipment, monitoring services, evidence file preparation, and ongoing repairs and maintenance. Norwalk would retain $126 from each citation.
Norwalk is frighteningly above the state average for people passing school buses, she said.
“In the subset of buses we have looked at to date we have observed greater than a three pass per day per bus,” she said. “It’s 3.4 violations per bus per day. We saw one bus in particular that had 30 violations in a given day. I hope that scares you a little bit, because with 50 or so buses in the city with three passes a day, that’s 150 opportunities for a child to get hurt, or, God forbid, killed.”
Meinke said the system also includes a human element, a live monitor, who witnesses the infraction and fills out an affidavit for police to use. State law allows police to issue tickets with the combination of still camera images, video footage and the testimony of the witness.
The still camera is triggered when the bus driver turns on the yellow lights, she said. It goes on when the stop arm goes out. A motion detector triggers a video camera. A high definition camera captures license plate information.
It’s all uploaded to a website for police to check.
Meinke said those eligible for a $450 fine include drivers who violate the legally mandated 10-foot buffer around a school bus.
The technology is being used in 23 Connecticut communities, including New Canaan, Stratford and Fairfield, she said.
The board will vote at its next meeting to amend its contract with First Student, its bus company, to allow for modifications of the buses, Chairman Mike Lyons said. Student Guardian will work through the summer to put cameras onto perhaps a third of Norwalk school buses, Meinke said.
Also coming next fall is the fruit of the labors performed by the school safety committee formed in December, after the Newtown tragedy — a consistent “all-hazards” approach, said Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy.
“We don’t want to build and plan for one emergency,” he said. “It’s our feeling that if we take this all-hazards approach we improve the safety in all the schools and really teach everybody some life skills.”
Those are skills that will benefit the children through their entire lives, he said.
“You all remember what to do if your clothes catch on fire, it’s that kind of learning that we want to share with everybody so that it becomes instinctive and second nature,” he said.
The “plain English” plan outlines four possible responses to an emergency: Lock in, lock out, evacuate and shelter. Four symbols identify those options in a program put together for children of all ages to easily absorb.
It’s largely a plan that was developed in Colorado by parents who lost their daughter in a school shooting, Emergency Management Deputy Director Michele Deluca said. It “really is a grass roots approach, looking at what those needs are and trying to respond to those needs,” she said.
There might be a run-hide-fight component to a lockdown, as students may move to another part of a school, McCarthy said. It’s possible that the kids might find themselves without an adult to help them, and the program is designed to empower them to make decisions if they have to, he said.
The crisis plan will be presented to teachers in August at their annual convocation, McCarthy said. The superintendent will get a report on what should be done.
“I think that what we saw, after Newtown, some of the previous school emergencies, this was a good opportunity to prod us to see what is working well and what needs to be improved upon and what lessons learned can be taken from some of these events,” he said. “Columbine provided a great lesson to law enforcement as far as how to react to the active shooter. Across the country, police departments changed their protocols. I think Newtown has caused us to reflect again about how to make it simple, what teachers can do. The run-hide-fight concept really is an outgrowth of that kind of response.”