Montgomery County public school officials are looking to cameras, promotional videos and increased enforcement to reduce misbehavior on school buses.
Under the theme "Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe," school officials are starting the school year with a new campaign titled "Ride by the Rules." Superintendent Jerry Weast and other school officials gathered Monday morning for a news conference outside Julius West Middle School in Rockville to announce the initiative against bullying, harassment and unruly behavior on buses.
School Board President Patricia B. O'Neill said she initiated the campaign in response to recent incidents on school buses, including sexual harassment, bullying and the throwing of items from moving buses onto other vehicles.
"It's difficult for the drivers to navigate the traffic in Montgomery County and be expected to monitor the behavior in buses," said O'Neill, who did not attend the news conference because a transportation problem stranded her out of state. "We need to remind our kids that it's a privilege to ride the bus."
She said that middle school students seem to be the most problem-prone group of riders but that no one school, route or grade is to be singled out. Nor is misbehavior on school buses a new issue, she added.
"I've been concerned for more than a dozen years as a parent," O'Neill said. "It's an issue that I've heard about on a personal level."
During the last school year, about 26 instances of sexual harassment on school buses were alleged. One incident involved five students at White Oak Middle School and one at Roberto Clemente Middle School, according to school officials. Only four were serious enough to involve police.
About 90,000 students ride the school system's fleet of 1,200 buses daily.
The "Ride by the Rules" initiative "is a team effort," said Weast, calling on students, parents and schools to collaborate to prevent problems.
Officials said the campaign will feature posters, brochures and bookmarks along with parent and student handouts in several languages for distribution throughout the school system.
Instructional videos on bus behavior, with versions for elementary, middle and high school students, will also be sent to every school.
The campaign even has a spokeswoman: Sheba Ram, a county bus driver. She will be known as "Ms. S" on a variety of marketing items aimed at students.
"We can't do our job properly without the help of students and support of parents," Ram said Monday. " We need to all remember to ride by the rules."
According to Weast, 200 buses will be equipped with cameras and tape-recording capability. He said that routes with high rates of misconduct or reported incidents will garner special attention and will receive a greater number of buses equipped with cameras.
Punishment is not being increased for students who misbehave on buses, Weast said, though enforcement is increasing. He said he expected more warnings to be issued to riders who behave inappropriately.
School officials, Weast added, are mindful of trampling personal rights, and he said the new campaign strikes a balance between incident-prevention and privacy concerns.
"We are not going to overlook violations," he said. "We know that there will be people who violate these rules -- that's what the cameras are for; that's what the training is for."