If you pass a stopped school bus in Johnston County, it’s likely little gray cameras are watching.
The Johnston County school system has “stop-arm” cameras on 93 of its 260 school buses, or about 36 percent. The county has the highest number of cameras among North Carolina’s more than 100 school districts and the second-highest percentage behind Asheville City Schools, which has cameras on all of its 29 buses.
Fewer than 4 percent of North Carolina’s nearly 13,300 public school buses have stop-arm cameras, or the tool school leaders say helps deter and convict drivers who pass stopped buses.
Johnston used a $156,500 grant in 2011 to buy the 93 camera systems currently in use. The school system is getting two more through a state program that is buying at least two camera systems for every school district.
Billy Sugg, transportation director for Johnston County schools, said the district was catching violators before using the cameras. However, the cameras produce high-quality images that are hard to dispute in court, he said.
“It pretty much eliminates the argument,” Sugg said.
Some stop-arm cameras run whenever the bus is running. Others turn on when the bus is picking up or dropping off students.
When a bus driver or onlooker reports a stop-arm violation, he or she fills out a form, and the school system pulls video from the time of the incident. The school system’s attorney then works the state trooper who handles all stop-arm cases in the county.
Drivers who pass a stopped school bus face a misdemeanor charge and a $500 fine. There is no prayer for judgment, and two-time offenders can lose their driver’s license. If a driver passes a stopped school bus and injures or kills a person, he or she can face a felony charge.
Each year, the state Department of Public Instruction compiles one-day counts of how many drivers pass stopped school buses. The average number of daily violations in Johnston County during the past decade was 17, or 3,145 during the 185-day school year.
One-day tallies of violations across North Carolina totaled 3,150 earlier this year, the lowest number in four years.
Derek Graham, DPI’s chief of transportation services, said the state hopes to deter and catch more drivers by extending a stop-arm camera pilot program to all school districts.
In 2011, the Governor’s Highway Safety Program paid for a handful of cameras on buses in five school districts. The aim was to demonstrate the technology, which costs about $3,000 per system. Authorities cited about 77 drivers through the pilot program, according to DPI’s website.
“It’s not something you want to throw out there without knowing it will help you accomplish your goals,” Graham said.
In 2013, the General Assembly set aside $1.38 million to expand the program statewide, equipping at least two buses in each district with cameras. A tally of stop-arm cameras currently in use shows that most school districts have no more than two camera systems.
“Due to the expense and the time that is required to monitor it, it is not necessarily something you need on every bus,” Graham said. “You can focus on problem areas and also use it as a tool to educate the public. The whole goal is not more prosecutions, but fewer violations.”
While exterior, stop-arm cameras are a relatively new endeavor for many school districts, interior cameras are more common.
The interior cameras, sometimes up to three per bus, are purchased and installed at the discretion of local school officials, compared to the state-funded stop-arm technology.
The Johnston County school system, which will have the $1,200 cameras inside every bus by the end of the school year, uses the interior footage mostly for student and driver discipline.
“The cameras are there to back up when you’re right and correct you when you’re wrong,” said Sugg, the Johnston transportation director.
Sugg said a parent once reported that a bus driver was falling asleep at the wheel. But when school officials pulled video from the cameras, they found the driver was not asleep but repositioning.
The surveillance of students and bus drivers raises questions and concerns with some parents and civil-rights groups. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, for instance, has been outspoken about surveillance technology not infringing upon privacy rights.
“That’s something that’s a constant challenge, especially in this day and age, when we see more parts of our lives subject to surveillance,” said Mike Meno, an ACLU spokesman.
“Whenever we are talking about this kind of technology, there needs to be really strong policies in place to regulate their use,” Meno said. “That could involve things like placing limits on retention time to make sure there are not ever-expanding files of footage of school buses in Johnston County and other places across the state.”
The Johnston County school system keeps stop-arm camera footage until the case has been disposed of, said school spokeswoman Tracey Peedin Jones.
“Video data for inside bus cameras is downloaded and saved on an as-needed basis,” Jones said in an email. “Otherwise, the data on the individual hard drives is recorded over as space is required.”