Excellence Award Recipient Spotlight
High-powered technical tools are as much a part of today’s educational experience as chalkboards and transparencies once were. Thanks to virtual reality apps, students can take field trips to far-away historical treasures such as Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa, without leaving their seats. If they want to know more about the science behind the tower’s unstable foundation, they can tweet their question to the teacher using a classroom hashtag.
At Maypearl ISD, the digital revolution’s impact is not confined to the classroom. Leadership is leveraging technology to fulfill one of its most important responsibilities: delivering kids to school and back home safely. Superintendent Ritchie Bowling was happy to pull back the curtain on the district’s Excellence Award-winning bus safety campaign.
Changing motorist behaviors
Anytime school buses cross paths with hurried commuters on busy roadways, rules are likely to be broken. On a single day in April 2019, Texas school bus drivers reported nearly 10,000 instances of motorists illegally passing them when they were loading or unloading children. In the capital city alone, Austin ISD officers issued 16,000 illegal-passing citations last year. But you don’t have to live in a bustling metropolis to know drivers can be impatient.
Situated about 45 minutes south of Dallas, Maypearl’s .83 square miles are home to fewer than 1,000 people. About 450 children representing 40 percent of the student population rely on district buses. During the 2018-2019 school year, Maypearl drivers reported an uptick in illegal passing, which is especially hazardous on the district’s many narrow, two-lane roads. In one case, a driver lost control of his vehicle and hit the back of the bus. Fortunately, nobody was injured. On campus, anxious parents and student drivers were going around buses during end-of-day loading.
To reverse the trend, Bowling collaborated with district law enforcement and key departments. Each bus was outfitted with six cameras that easily download recordings to a flash drive. When a motorist illegally passes, drivers simply hit a button that marks the recording so law enforcement can review it. Bowling reports the new technology is inspiring drivers to change ingrained behaviors that put kids at risk.
“One of our parents had driven past buses several times while they were loading children. When a teacher confronted her, she said she had no plans to stop. We got a recording of her in the act, and we turned it over to law enforcement. We’ve had no more issues with her since,” said Bowling.
Bowling adds that the cameras also provide a powerful tool for identifying and addressing student discipline issues, as well as risky driver behavior such as route deviations and unplanned stops.
A SMARTer way to protect riders
Last August, a proud Florida mother anxiously waited with camera in hand to capture her three children, ages five, six, and eight, getting off the bus the first day of school. When the doors opened, her kids were nowhere in sight. It turned out the driver let them out at the wrong stop.
Fortunately, the children were found about 50 minutes later. All three were sitting along a dirt road, drenched in sweat and crying. That is exactly the kind of incident Maypearl hopes to avoid by using the SMART Tag system.*
SMART Tag and similar student tracking systems require riders to scan their unique identification card every time they enter and exit the bus. District transportation departments can access real-time data about whether kids are boarding the correct bus and getting off at their designated stop. Parents can receive text messages when the bus is 10-15 minutes away.
The technology that powers student tracking systems is modern. The risk it addresses, however, is tragically captured by a crime that stumped law enforcement officers for four decades.
In 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared while walking to his New York City school bus stop. Etan’s parents were not as fortunate as that Florida mother. The school failed to notify them their son was missing, so police did not start their search until that afternoon. Etan, whose face was the first to appear in a national missing-child milk carton campaign, was never found.
Strength through collaboration
Considering what’s at stake, it can be tempting to rush into purchasing the many bus safety solutions hitting the market. Bowling recommends you take your time, assess your needs, and lean on your subject matter experts.
“Transportation of course needs to be involved, but don’t forget about information technology. We quickly realized how important those folks are in selecting the right solution and ensuring we got the most out of it,” Bowling said.
Student safety is a priority that transcends geographic boundaries. Whichever route you choose, chances are that other districts have already gone there.
“Reach out to them and find out what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what they might do differently,” said Bowling. “Input from organizations like your own is as important, if not more important, than the manufacturer’s input.”
We love the collaborative spirit of Bowling’s advice. In fact, the Fund is a member-owned and operated risk pool built on strength through collaboration. We are honored to partner with members such as Maypearl ISD who share our commitment to keeping schools—and school buses—safe havens for the children we serve together.
Even a simple idea can make a difference
The Fund’s Excellence Award program recognizes members who implement exemplary solutions to risk management challenges. Recipients earn a $1,000 honorarium to apply toward their risk management initiatives. We also recognize them in front of their peers during our Members’ Conference. The Excellence Award application is open every year, November through January.
*The Fund provides this information for educational purposes only. We do not endorse or recommend this product or any other.
Pictured: Maypearl ISD Payroll and Benefits Administrator Nancy Wiggins accepts the 2019 Excellence Award at Members' Conference 2019.