New school bus contracts awarded, concern over student safety a factor

LIHUE — Students on Akita Enterprises buses are misbehaving, and President Wendy Akita is concerned.

“There’s been a number of behavioral issues. I rode a school bus 60 years ago and never had a problem. We didn’t dare think of some of the pranks these kids pull,” Akita said. “And it makes it unsafe for the students who aren’t pulling the pranks, our driver and for other people on the road.”

The state Department of Education recently finalized school bus contracts for Akita Enterprises and Yamaguchi Bus Service on Kauai and operators on Maui in the final phase of its “Get on Board” initiative.

The contract requires new school buses, beginning July 1, to incorporate computerized routing software, automated route and stop assignments, GPS mapping and tracking and cameras. Akita said the introduction of a three-camera system will prevent students from acting out.

“(The cameras) have to aim toward the back and the front of the bus, which provides for safer situations for the students, driver and those driving on the road,” Akita said. “Two years ago in Anahola, there was a kid hanging out of the bus. And that was scary.”

Akita Enterprises will service the Kapaa and Kauai complexes and Yamaguchi Bus Service will serve the Waimea complex.

Yamaguchi Bus Service did not respond to TGI’s request for comment.

The new system has been in effect on the Big Island and Oahu for two years, but not yet on Kauai and Maui. Akita said the three-camera system and other appliances were not required by the DOE until now.

“It’s going to really help with the discipline problems on the vehicles,” she said. “It’s not a hassle, but it’s been a whole new learning curve for our staff here.

“It’s a new situation, but in the long run it provides accountability,” Akita added.

Lindsay Chambers, spokesperson from the DOE, said accountability aboard the bus goes both ways.

“In some cases, and I’m not saying this has happened, but this also holds the contractors accountable, too,” Chambers said. “For example, if a kid got on and got off at the wrong stop, we’re able to use that footage to verify where they got on and got off. It’s not just for student behavior, but also to hold our vendors accountable.”

Chambers said video surveillance is used nationwide to monitor school buses, and is a tool for a school to use to investigate reports of student misconduct.

The Get on Board initiative “mirrors what other school districts are already doing to upgrade their technology in order to protect the health and welfare of their students,” she added.

In June 2012, the state DOE eliminated 100 bus routes due to rising costs and a loss of funding.

According to the DOE, this initiative will reduce transportation costs on Kauai by $493,514 — from $4,606,334 to $4,112,820 — due to “more flexibility in how bus contracts are awarded.”

Chambers said multiple competitive offers for Kauai drove prices down.

The Maui News reported that bus services on Maui will cost $9.1 million for the 2017-2018 school year from, $200,000 less than the 2016-2017 school year.

The DOE said the initiative will reduce transportation costs across the state by $13 million.

According to the DOE, the department transports around 40,000 students per day. On Kauai, 3,633 students take the bus to school, including 141 special education students.

Akita said this new initiative will allow bus drivers to focus on the road and not worry about student behavior.

“We were taught respect and how to behave. But these kids, they don’t know how to behave,” Akita said. “These new rules will make parents and drivers feel more comfortable with their kids riding on school buses because they don’t have to worry about stuff flying out the windows with no repercussions.”

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