BY MICHAEL WALTON
ELK RAPIDS — Elk Rapids Public Schools buses that cart students to and from classes are slated to be equipped with cameras, a move school officials said will boost student safety.
"We are not here to spy like some kids think," said Carol Brokaw-Burry, the district's transportation director. "It's almost like a buddy system on the buses."
Roughly 12 district buses ran pick-up and drop-off routes two years ago.
Budget cuts trimmed that number to eight route buses this year that cover an area of roughly 147 square miles, Brokaw-Burry said.
Drivers are therefore trying to keep an eye on bigger, louder, and at times more boisterous, groups of students on each bus.
Cameras won't help monitor students in real-time, they will give the district a tool to review instances of bullying and other problems that may occur.
District officials similarly can use surveillance footage to review complaints about drivers by student or parents. Cameras mounted outside the bus also will capture any dangerous drivers that endanger student safety.
Brokaw-Burry said the district hopes to have six cameras installed on each route bus and an extra bus by the end of January.
The project is estimated to cost about $22,000. Funding will come from the district's recently approved bond proposal.
Superintendent Steve Prissel said liability concerns "minimally" played a role in the decision to acquire bus cameras.
"Really, it came down to we want to create a more and more safe environment," he said. "Certainly liability insurance companies appreciate the cameras."
Public transit agencies throughout the country increasingly are installing surveillance systems on buses and trains, Bay Area Transportation Authority Executive Director Tom Menzel said.
BATA installed cameras and microphones on its buses three years ago. The project cost about $207,000 and was paid for with a federal grant, said Kelly Yaroch, BATA's human resources and operations director.
Surveillance equipment improved the safety of riders and drivers, and helped BATA avoid lawsuits, agency officials said.
"It's been a win all the way around for us," Menzel said.
Menzel said BATA officials drafted a security camera policy regarding privacy concerns, based on policies used by other public transportation systems.
The policy states surveillance footage is only reviewed in certain circumstances, like a formal BATA complaint or a crime. Footage is deleted within 30 days unless it becomes part of an investigation or legal proceeding. Signs on buses tell riders they are being recorded.
Several individuals at the BATA transfer station on Hall Street said they don't see the cameras as a privacy issue.
"It's a public bus, so what you say is not in privacy to begin with," said London Damm, a student at Kitchi Minogining Tribal School.
Amy Sanchez, of Traverse City, has used BATA buses on and off for 20 years.
She compared the cameras to a Breathalyzer test and said riders have no reason to fear either, as long as they have nothing to hide. Sanchez added she has witnessed drunken, destructive behavior on buses, and young people talking openly about lewd and rude subjects.
"It's a protection to us on the bus," she said.