HELENA — If you look at the left side of a Helena Public Schools bus, you’ll now see a small device mounted near the stop arm. While it may not look like much, leaders say it’s going to make a big difference for student safety.
The device is a high-definition camera – one of two trained on the outside of the bus, where the stop arm is located. The goal is, if someone fails to stop when the arm is out and the flashing lights are on, the district will be able to give information on that vehicle to law enforcement.
“This camera system’s so good, we can pick up a license plate – and actually, we can probably identify the driver,” said Tom Cohn, Helena Public Schools’ transportation director.
District staff can monitor the video from the transportation office. It’s also recorded and stored for two weeks, and drivers have a button that can flag the video if they see an incident.
Helena school buses have had cameras for several years. Over the summer, the district installed new HD cameras inside the buses. They added the stop-arm cameras earlier this month, after Cohn says they saw more cases of people passing while the red lights are on.
“In the past couple of years, we’ve actually had some near misses with students trying to cross to get to a bus and somebody driving not paying attention,” he said. “We haven’t had any accidents yet, but the fact is we have had a couple of close calls.”
Cohn said, a week after the cameras were installed, they had already used them once because someone failed to stop.
The cameras aren’t the only new tech upgrade on the buses. The district has also added electronic card readers. Students will be given cards that they will use to mark when they get on and off the bus. Parents will be able to receive automatic notifications through the Parent Portal app.
“We’re going from a cumbersome paper check-off, with a driver trying to watch traffic and check kids on, to an advanced system where the kids swipe the card and it’s electronically forwarded to us, live-time data,” said Cohn.
Schools will be passing the cards out to students the last week of October, and they will go into use in November.
Cohn says the district is still struggling with bus driver shortages. They’ve hired some since the start of the year, but lost others.
“We’re still kind of at the same point as we were when we started the year,” Cohn said.
The district has announced plans to start “rolling route suspensions,” asking families to transport their own kids one week per month. Leaders say that change will be fairer than continuing to change students’ routes or eliminating some altogether.
The district is looking at compensating families for the weeks their routes are unable to run.
School bus safety became a topic of discussion at the Montana Legislature this year – particularly after 6-year-old Jordana Hubble was struck and severely injured after getting off a bus near Whitefish in 2019.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 267, which prohibits drivers from passing a stopped school bus on the right and lays out procedures for the reporting and investigation of drivers who fail to stop. As of next year, it will also require school buses to use extended stop arms to partially block the roadway in both directions, if their route requires kids to cross.