ONLY ON KOLD: Danger on board - Tucson News Now

ONLY ON KOLD: Danger on board

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Across Tucson, parents put their most precious cargo on the school bus.  That cargo can have a mind of its own.  Some young students understand that rules exist.

A young Gabriel Zazueta explained that he knows how important sitting down on the bus is "because if you get in a car crash, you might get hurt."

Standing on the bus is a minor offense compared scenes across the country.  Video of fights on buses can be found in a variety of places over the years, and includes a bus brawl six years ago in Gilbert.

Here in Tucson districts are watching.  We spent months pulling the reports from local school districts.

Gabriel's father, also named Gabriel Zazueta, took a look at the list of offenses last school year by students from his son's school on Tucson Unified School District buses.

"I think there was an incident where they were throwing rocks out the window or throwing stuff out the window.  But they immediately told us what was going on," he said.

Overall, Tucson's largest school district had 173 offenses of throwing objects on the bus, more than two hundred cases of fighting or weapons, and almost 700 instances of students repeatedly out of their seat.

In Sunnyside, the second largest district, where Zazueta has another son, there were 13 fighting incidents last year.  So far this year, there are five cases of fighting or bullying on the bus.

These kinds of activity concern Zazueta "just because it distracts the driver."

"It becomes a danger to not only the children, but to all of the community because now you're operating this 40-foot long bus on a major roadway within our city streets," said Sunnyside transportation director Carlos Valdez, who spent 28 years with Tucson Police.

He showed where GPS tracking of buses that are either on-time in green or red if they're late.  That also comes in if there's a major problem and a driver needs help.  He can also watch video of a bus where the driver has pushed a panic button.

"Whether it's a major incident or not, as long as it's a behavioral problem that has been addressed by the driver but continues, then we have to step it up and give it to the school for disciplinary," he said.

"Sunnyside plans to equip its buses with three cameras each, and they'll be watching the entire ride.  But if a problem arises during the ride, the bus driver can notify the district and send that segment of video to them by pushing a panic button, which provides for more immediate disciplinary response.  It hasn't removed the need for discipline, but students now know that someone is watching.

"We still see behavioral problems, but incidents like what happened in Florida where you had the large fight on the bus, those are infrequent," Valdez said.

Smaller districts face similar challenges.  Last school year Marana had 27 cases ranging from fighting to threats among students, and 17 last fall.  Catalina Foothills had three either threats or violent acts on buses last fall.  It said that none of them risked an accident.

When parents were asked on social media what is their biggest concern for their kids on the bus, most say bullying.

Valdez says the video helps not just prevent, but also crack down on it.

"You can't refute that.  The visual record is priceless.  And the good thing about our system is that we don't have to wait days and days for the video to get to the administrators," Valdez said.

"We had an incident of bullying actually.  But the school quickly dealt with it.  Once they found out, they got them off the bus and talked to the parents," Zazueta said.

And that's one factor outside any school district's control.  Parental involvement must also play a part for any measures to really work.

"It's just like being at home, you know?  You have to obey the rules, it's the same thing I teach my son, you know. It's the same principle, you have to listen to the bus driver as you would listen to us.  And if you're not doing that, we have to talk about it," Zazueta said.

"I don't worry," said his son.

Copyright 2014 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

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