Cameras to be installed on Duluth school buses

DULUTH - Some Duluth parents say it's not uncommon to see cars whiz by their child's school bus at 50 mph, ignoring the lowered stop bar and flashing lights that signal for drivers to halt as children climb aboard.

Michelle, a Duluth housewife and mother of three who asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons, has tried to write down the offending vehicles' license plate number, make and model. But the cars travel so quickly that it's impossible, she said.

"I see cars just swinging by each morning, and I'm going, 'How can they do that?'" Michelle said. "Especially on a rainy day in slippery weather. Kids are waiting for a school bus, and they have to stand there. People will honk, too, and they are impatient."

In response to complaints from parents and bus drivers, Duluth police's Community Oriented Police Services division has started a bus stop safety initiative dubbed "Operation Safe Stop."

A pilot program to mount cameras on the stop bar of school buses in the Duluth cluster is the latest of several measures targeting reckless drivers at bus stops. The cameras would activate when the stop bar is lowered.

The two-way cameras can record vehicles traveling toward and away from the bus. An officer can then trace the vehicle's tag number and issue the offender a citation.

Duluth charges a hefty fine of about $350 for illegally passing a school bus, said Officer Jeremy Lacow of Duluth police.

Because the cameras are expensive, only two school buses will be outfitted with the cameras to begin with. The camera equipment was donated by a private company, and it will be installed sometime over the summer, said Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for Gwinnett County Public Schools.

If the effort proves successful, more cameras could be added to the fleet.

"It's a pilot program, so we will be evaluating the results of how effective it is," Roach said. "There is not money budgeted for it at this point, but if it proves to be effective it would be something we would look to possibly expand."

Lacow was inspired to start Operation Safe Stop last fall after talking with a transportation supervisor for Gwinnett County Public Schools. The supervisor began complaining to Lacow about how often motorists were passing school buses, putting kids in danger.

"I went up to a bus stop, and I couldn't believe it," Lacow said.

"That first day I went out and had several cars pass me. I probably wrote four or five citations. It kind of just developed from there."

Lacow said 43 citations have been issued for vehicles illegally passing school buses since October 2005.

One man was also arrested on a felony charge of enticing a child for indecent purposes at a bus stop. The man was a day laborer who allegedly yelled obscene remarks at an 11-year-old girl and asked her to come to his apartment to have sex, Lacow said.

Another component of Operation Safe Stop is recruiting and coordinating citizen volunteers - mostly parents - who will watch over children at the bus stop. Those monitors will have a direct line of communication with Lacow to report problems of bullying, fights, illegal passing of school buses or other suspicious activity.

Since Michelle already walks her 6-year-old son to the bus stop most days at 7:20 a.m., she was one of the first to volunteer. So far, only four other parents have signed up, but Lacow hopes to have monitors stationed at almost every bus stop in Duluth by the start of next school year.

Volunteers will have to attend a short orientation, have their picture taken for an ID badge and submit to a background check.