City weighs taping audio on buses, too

NASHUA – In addition to being videotaped, students riding school buses would be subject to audio surveillance under a proposal being put forth by the district’s director of transportation.

The district currently has 48 video cameras being used to record students on about half of the city’s 86 school buses.

Transportation director David Rauseo said the recordings have been helpful to discipline students for behavior on the buses.

But by adding audio surveillance, the district would have another tool to help deter bullying and threatening among students, he said.

“The camera catches a lot, but not everything,” Rauseo said.

State law RSA 570-A:2, under the wiretapping and eavesdropping provision, allows the owner of school buses to make audio recordings if authorized by the local school board.

Each bus would have to have a sign announcing the use of the audio recording displayed prominently. In addition, parents and students would have to be notified as part of the district’s pupil safety and violence prevention policy.

Before the school board can approve the proposal, state law requires that a public hearing be held. A hearing hasn’t yet been scheduled.

At Monday night’s school board meeting, members chose to refer the proposal to the board’s policy committee for further review before scheduling the hearing.

Although it is not yet clear what the consensus of the board is, there was some skepticism expressed. Board member Robert Hallowell said he would not support audio recording on school buses.

“I’m not in favor of the general concept,” he said.

Board President Tom Vaughan said he would be willing to listen to arguments for the idea, but said the research he has found shows that audio recording on school buses can be a complicated issue.

“It’s not as simple as having a public hearing and moving ahead,” he said.

The state’s law outlines specific policy requirements for districts seeking to pursue audio surveillance on school buses.

The school board would be required to establish policies addressing how long the recordings are retained and how they are destroyed, “ownership” of the recording and limitations on who gets to listen to them.

State law would require that all recordings be destroyed within 10 days, unless it is relevant to a disciplinary proceeding.

District policy would have to allow the parent or legal guardian of any student against whom a recording is being used as part of a disciplinary proceeding to listen to the recording, according to state law.

Recordings can only be reviewed if there is a report of an incident or a complaint, according to the law.

Rauseo said there would be no additional cost to the district because the cameras are already equipped with audio recording capabilities, which now are turned off.

Walter Perry, executive director of the New Hampshire School Transportation Association, said the law permitting audio surveillance was passed in 2006. Perry said he knew some districts have implemented it, but wasn’t certain which.

Perry said audio could be useful when it comes to preventing bullying.

“Somebody can be on a school bus and not physically doing anything, but they can be saying some really damaging words,” he said. “The video recording isn’t going to pick that up.”

Perry’s organization worked with legislators to get the law passed. When the law was being debated, many parents raised concerns about invasion of privacy issues.

“That’s why we built into the law who can view this video,” he said. “There are strict guidelines.”

Ken Duesing, assistant director of student services for the Manchester School District, said he knew the district used video cameras, but wasn’t sure about audio.

Rauseo said if the school board approves the proposal, the audio recording could begin shortly thereafter.

The district has been gradually adding video cameras to school buses over the past several years. Rauseo said the district started out with 13 and now has 48 cameras.

The cameras are not hidden, Rauseo said, and they have been reviewed only when someone reports inappropriate behavior. Many of the cameras are used on routes that have had problems with behavior, he said.

Rauseo said that while it is tough to measure whether the cameras are working, the district isn’t seeing incidents as severe as what was happening before.

In one instance, Rauseo said students were completely out of control and throwing things out the window. Convinced it was a dummy, students made an “inappropriate hand gesture” to the camera, he said.

They denied it, he said, until they were told that the district had a video recording.

“Then they all came clean,” he said.

Rauseo said he and administrators could only view the video recordings. Parents and students are not permitted to view them, he said.

For the past two years, Rauseo also has been pushing for the district to install a service called Bus Radio, which promotes itself as offering age-appropriate music and advertising to children.

Rauseo said Bus Radio would help with behavior issues, but some parents and school board members raised concerns. Rauseo said the service has not been installed on buses.