A small New Jersey school district may be one of the first in the country to employ satellite technology that allows parents to make sure their youngsters get to and from school safely.

Under a pilot program with the system’s manufacturer, students in West Paterson are issued plastic ID tags that a computer scanner activates when they board a school bus. The technology is much like that used by package delivery services.

Parents and school administrators who log on to the company’s web site using a password can see where their child got on and off the bus. They can also follow the bus along its route through the satellite tracking system.

If a child has fallen asleep and is left on a bus, the system would be able to provide immediate answers, West Paterson Superintendent Frederick Lejoi said.

“It’s a great system. We can’t lose a bus, and we can’t lose a child. We never have, and I don’t want to,” Lejoi said.

The system’s manufacturer, Thoreb North America of West Caldwell, N.J., approached the 906-student, K-8 district about running a no-cost pilot program last year. Five students and their families participated.

This year, the program is being expanded to all West Paterson schools—two elementary schools and one middle school.

The program normally would cost $3,000 to $4,000 per bus, but it’s free to the district this year, officials said.

Each student will carry an ID card in his or her backpack. As soon as the student boards or leaves a bus, an antenna on the bus will detect the ID card and transmit the information to the company’s server.

This information is integrated with a global positioning system (GPS) on the bus to help officials determine the bus’s exact location.

“Wherever the bus is, we know where [it] is within 15 feet and we know how fast it’s going,” said Hank Henderson, managing director of Thoreb North America. This is especially helpful during bad weather and traffic accidents, he said.

Because it’s still a pilot program, the district and the company haven’t worked out all the bugs yet, such as what to do when a student forgets his or her ID card.

“That’s something we haven’t gotten past yet,” Lejoi said. “Eventually we will have to sit down and work that out with the company.”

As for privacy concerns, no parent has lodged a protest. “Only numbers are being used, so no one knows who they are except for the school,” Lejoi said. “Parents don’t see it as a threat, just as something that’s helpful.”

In addition to individual student tracking, the company has installed a special feature that calls out a student’s name when it’s his or her turn to get off the bus. This is helpful for small or special-needs children, Henderson said.

Digital cameras soon will be added aboard each bus to provide real-time images to school administrators and police via the internet.

“In our case, the picture can be transmitted in real time [to the company’s server],” Henderson said. “If there are real problems on the bus, the police can [intercept] that bus to see what’s going on.”

The district’s buses also will have a silent alarm feature to notify officials in case of an emergency.

While West Paterson is pushing the envelope in high-tech monitoring, other New Jersey districts have been adding cameras to their school buses, largely as a way of deterring misbehavior.

Bridgewater-Raritan, Union Township, and Cherry Hill are among districts installing video cameras in buses this year.

“It does appear to be a growing trend. A lot of districts have started to request it in their bid specifications,” said Dave Armitt, general manager with Laidlaw Transit, a school bus provider.

“Obviously, when you have a driver trying to keep his eyes on the road and on 54 kids in the back of the bus, it serves as—for lack of a better word—a deterrent for kids,” he said.

Harold Bell, principal at Kawameeh Middle School in Union Township, said the videotapes will help officials sort out what happened when parents dispute disciplinary action.

“I think it’s really going to help, because the kids can no longer say, ‘I wasn’t doing that,”‘ Bell said.

Links:

West Paterson Schools
http://www.wpschools.org

Thoreb North America
http://www.thorebnorthamerica.com