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Can technology prevent another busing incident?

October 23, 2007

At this point, we can only speculate on what procedures might be changed to prevent a repeat of the recent incident in which a 5-year-old Washington County child was put on the wrong bus, then let off two miles from his home.

Had the child in question been run over in the parking lot of the Sharpsburg Pike Food Lion, where a family friend found him, or if he had been snatched by a pedophile, there would undoubtedly be a lawsuit filed, seeking multi-million-dollar damages.

Given that, it would make sense to spend some money on a system that would ensure that each child got on the correct bus - and was dropped off at the correct location.

How might such a system work?

In August, The La Cross Tribune in La Cross, Wis., published a small item about a procedure used in the Holmen school district.

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There, for the first week or so, elementary students wear wristbands that list the child's name, bus driver and drop-off location.

Holmen School District Transportation Supervisor Roger Saxton was quoted as saying that during the time when wristbands are worn, no student gets on the bus without one, unless an administrator approves.

Such a system could be modified so that when there is a change - a child getting off at a grandparent's home, for example - he or she could be issued a wristband just for that day. A more sophisticated version of that system could function with bar codes, so that the bus driver could check each child in with a code reader.

Other school districts use a system in which students swipe cards through a reader as they board the bus, but using such a system would depend on young students keeping track of the card.

It's been used with more success for older students riding big-city bus systems, such as the Metro in Washington, D.C.

In a 1999 CNN story, Metro's use of "smart cards" was described as a way to admit passengers without actually making them swipe a magnetic striped card.

The story said that the cards can be used without taking them out of a pocket or purse. So if such a card were attached to the child's book bag, it could ensure that the students got on the correct bus without requiring them to handle a card.

The cards can also be programmed so that they're active at certain times and inactive at others.

Metro uses that feature to give discounts to students who ride the bus on school days. But on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, students must pay full fare.

The cost of some of these systems might be prohibitive for a school system the size of Washington County's.

But whatever is done, this incident should prompt the system to look at how other districts around the country have solved the same problem.

We would bet that someone, somewhere in this country has figured out how to keep students safe, by making sure they get on the correct bus.

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