VCSD looks at school safety, considering BusPatrol and return of SRO

— Taken from Albany County’s website

Every day, an estimated 50,000 motor vehicles illegally pass school buses across the state, according to New York State’s Operation Safe Stop. Voorheesville is now debating whether it should allow a private company to affix cameras on the side of its buses, which would record violators’ license plates so they could be ticketed.

NEW SCOTLAND — The Voorheesville School Board at its Nov. 7 meeting agreed to form a committee to examine safety and protective factors in the district. 

“Not just physical but emotional components” as well, noted board President Rachel Gilker.

Voorheesville Superintendent Frank Macri said the school board had conversations over the summer about once again having a school resource officer, about protective factors, about social and emotional health, and about safety in general.

“We then kind of almost hit like a stop gap on that for a little bit,” he said, until the past week or so when five emails were received, requesting the reimplementation of the school-resource-officer program.

The district is also considering joining a program offered through Albany County in which a company called BusPatrol would place cameras on the outside of school buses to prosecute drivers who pass a stopped bus. While the school district would receive no revenues from the program, Albany County is to get 40 percent, according to a contract agreed upon last fall.

Before moving on to other things, Gilker said she and Macri were “going to discuss exactly how to get [the committee] off the ground.” Earlier in the discussion, it was noted the group would consist of Macri and a few members of the school board, while the exact nature of student, teacher, and community involvement had not been decided. 

While the ad hoc committee will have a broad purview, a lot of the safety discussion focused on whether or not the district should bring back its school-resource-officer program. 

“I’ll say I just don’t think we have a good sense of what our community wants on this issue,” said Argi O’Leary. “Like, we talked about it over the summer a couple of times … My sense was there wasn’t a lot of support among the board for pursuing an SRO.”

O’Leary said there had been talk about layered mitigation strategies, and the “the myriad of things we were doing to try and address safety.”

She noted strong opinions on both sides for a resource officer.

Early in the meeting, Erika Smitkin, who unsuccessfully ran for school board this past May, asked the board to bring back the school resource officer, noting Voorheesville had just had three incidents in the past six months that drew police to campus. Those incidents — earlier this month, in May, and April — each resulted in an arrest and charges

Later, O’Leary said she would like to see the district hold some kind of forum and invite different stakeholders like the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, New York State School Boards Association, community members, students, and teachers, “to inform us.”

The last time the district debated a school resource officer was four years ago.

The board held a forum in August 2018 to solicit community feedback on the program — but no one came. The Enterprise reported at the time: “The Voorheesville School Board last month tabled a vote on hiring a sheriff’s deputy for the upcoming school year, citing more community input was needed to make a decision, but a sparsely attended forum on the matter Tuesday night had the board’s district safety committee wondering how, in the dog days of summer, it can reach more people.

“Had more people come, they would have heard school staff, drawing from prior and present experience with school resource officers, unanimous in its praise of the program as well as clarity about the officer’s specific role in the schools.”

Also in August 2018, after the community forum, the district sent out a survey to residents and received 450 responses in return. The board approved a one-year pilot the following month.

During the Nov. 7 meeting, Tahlia Michels, a non-voting student member of the board, said, “I think it would be really nice to hear from the students how they feel about if they would want an SRO or if they would feel uncomfortable with an SRO.”

 Trustee Patricia Putnam said she was “more of a strong advocate for trying to help with the mental-health piece of it — to try to maybe prevent future threats, if you will. Have resources for kids that are struggling, so it doesn’t get to that level.”



Another issue suggested for the new ad hoc committee on safety and protective factors in the district will be whether Voorheesville should sign an agreement with BusPatrol. 

The company puts its own equipment on district school buses and then tickets motorists for passing school buses, getting a piece of the revenue from the fine for passing the school bus. 

“Many, many schools are doing it,” Macri said. 

During the board’s Oct. 11 facilities committee meeting, Macri explained that BusPatrol uses an artificial intelligence program that “follows buses, follows them all around, and anyone who has a violation, they have a protocol that they send all the information, they basically get all of your ticket information or citation information [and] they send it all off to a third party.”

The data is then sent to an evaluator, Macri said, then “somebody else,” and finally to the county. The entire process — from catching the violation on camera to verifying it to sending it in — only takes a few hours, he said.

On Nov. 7, Macri said one thing that came up during the facilities committee discussion was: Who owns the cameras?  “Per the law that was written, schools do not have access to those,” Macri said, adding school districts don’t have access to the footage captured by BusPatrol’s cameras.

“So BusPatrol wrote the law,” O’Leary, an attorney, quipped.

Voorheesville currently has cameras on some of its buses and has some ability to punish violators: The district has to send its footage to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which in turn decides what the violation is. 

Board Vice President Rob Samson said the biggest change between the current situation and if BusPatrol took over is: “These folks are going to go and make sure tickets get prosecuted for us.”

Samson later said he saw deterrence as the biggest benefit to signing up with BusPatrol. “Sort of like putting an ADT sign out on your lawn,” he said, referencing American District Telegraph signs to indicate the home has a security system.

Locally, the South Colonie Central School District has implemented the program. At the Nov. 8 facilities committee meeting, Macri said Bethlehem had signed on and Guilderland was about to.

It costs Voorheesville about $2,ooo per camera, Macri said, but BusPatrol would bear that cost if the district signed up with the company. But, other than BusPatrol footing the cost of the new cameras, Macri said, “We see no revenue from it.”

But Albany County does.

In October of last year, the county approved an agreement with BusPatrol where it receives 40 percent of all ticket revenue generated by the company’s monitoring. 

According to state law, traffic approaching from either direction must stop for a stopped school bus with its red lights flashing. The first-time penalty for illegally passing a school bus is a $250 to $400 fine, 5 points on the driver’s license, and/or possibly 30 days in jail.

 On Long Island, the local ABC affiliate reported in June that Suffolk County had entered into an agreement with BusPatrol, which turned out to be very lucrative. 

According to ABC7, the BusPatrol program in Suffolk County last year generated about $12 million in revenue of which $6.6 million went to the county; approximately 85,000 tickets were written of which about 6,000 were disputed. 

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