Document Road: PBC School bus camera problems

Posted at 10:16 AM, Apr 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-04 20:49:53-04

As news reporters our job is to gather information and uncover news. We get our information in a variety of ways: through sources, news briefings and by requesting documents, known as public records, from agencies.

Our journey down Document Road started last May with a Facebook tip from a parent whose child was injured on a school bus. It got us thinking -- was it an isolated incident? We turned to public records, as we often do, for answers.

Public records are a gold mine for information. Florida Statute 119 covers what can be released, and the law is broad so most records are reviewable.

That doesn't mean it's easy to get these records. There are exemptions, meaning some records can't be released, or the information has to be removed. This includes things like Social Security numbers, addresses of law enforcement officials and in the context of school, student records. When information is removed, it can take a long time to get the records and the agency can charge us money.
While we heard stories that bus cameras were not working, we needed to find a way to document it. The Consumer Watchdog exposed bus breakdowns starting in May 2014 using public records. So, we were ready to do the same to document the camera issues.

We hit roadblocks immediately. One of the biggest issues -- the time it took to get answers. While the records have to be made available in a reasonable amount of time, there are no specific time limits. That can be challenging. We kept pushing for answers, but our investigation into this issue stretched on for 10 months.

Obtaining public records from an agency at times can be a trying journey.

Here's a look behind the scenes. Take a ride with us down Document Road. A road we traveled to find out if Palm Beach County school bus cameras are working.

After many months, we finally learned the truth. There were no maintenance records for school bus cameras. That was surprising, because we knew the buses were inspected every 30 school days for items like the tires, air conditioning, and engine. That's how we exposed the bus breakdown issue in 2014. So, why were cameras not inspected?

Palm Beach County officials remember cameras on buses dating back to the late 1990s. In recent years, two systems were installed. Yet we found, even though your tax dollars paid for new systems, nobody was ever put in charge of making sure the cameras worked. In a district with thousands of policies, nobody ever decided to make it a policy to inspect the cameras that the taxpayer paid for.

Without any maintenance records to document the problem, we looked for other ways to prove the problems bus drivers and parents were experiencing with bus cameras.

"If we purchase these systems make sure they are working," explained Boca Raton dad Jack Mahoney. "Everything fell apart because it became a he said she said kind of think once there was no video evidence."

Parents say they can't get answers.

"You asked the school district why the cameras were not working. What did they tell you?" Strathman asked.

"Nothing," Mahoney said.

"What did you think of that response?" Strathman questioned.

"It's frustrating," Mahoney said.

In emails, another parent and school board member expressed their frustration.

"There was an incident on a bus, an inoperable camera and answers from the PBSDPD [Palm Beach School District Police Department] have created additional questions which I have asked for answers previously and have failed to get responses," a parent wrote.

School Board Member Mike Murgio described the lack of answers as "stonewallling."

They weren't getting answers, so some parents turned to us for answers.

Knowing there are documented incidents where the cameras failed to record critical moments, we asked for another public record -- incident reports. Take a look at our journey down Document Road.

On June 4, 2015, the last day of school, we got a call from a bus driver who said a female student threw a wad of paper at her as she walked off the bus. The projectile hit the bus driver in her face. She wasn't sure who the student was, but wanted to press charges.
To confirm that this incident happened we requested an incident report and the video recording from the district.
At first the district said we couldn't have it because the incident report contained active criminal investigative information. We fought that denial because we didn't want the investigative information. We wanted the basics like who, what, when, where, and why. By law, the district has to release this information. It took several emails and six weeks to get the redacted incident report.

After six weeks, we found out the camera didn't record.

Knowing this incident report had information about the cameras in it, we asked for more reports to document how often the cameras don't work. We asked for a small snapshot to see if these reports would be useful. We got 11 incident reports, and 3 times the cameras weren't working. So we asked for more reports. That's when the costs began skyrocketing in an inconsistent manner.

The district wanted to charge us $477 for 198 reports which covered two years. When we asked for just one year's worth of reports, the quote didn't split in half. It only went down to $357 for half as many reports as our $477 quote. Meaning the time needed to redact one report had gone up from 4 minutes in the initial quote to almost 11 minutes per report in the second quote.

With such a high price, we asked for incident reports that mentioned the words "camera" or "recording" or "video."

This narrowed our request to 48 reports.

In no particular order, we were given 10 of the 48 reports.

In those 10 reports, 8 times the camera worked. The investigator in the other two incidents didn't have the video at the time the report was written. That second batch showed a far different snapshot of the camera program.

These incident reports were costly. On average, about $7.50 per report and they're only a few pages. That's because we were charged to remove student names and any other sensitive information.

These reports showed us inconsistent information.

Sometimes there was video, sometimes there wasn't, and other times the cameras were not even mentioned. Without a uniform way to indicate if the cameras recorded, and the high cost to get each report, we decided incident reports were just another document dead end. They weren't going to give us a true picture of how often the cameras work or fail.

So our trip continues down Document Road.

Emails are tricky. You have to know the keywords used to document the problem. Sources told us emails were often used to document the camera problems. Our quest to get these emails is time consuming, costly, and slow.

We've paid for emails, and are receiving them in small batches. We'll continue to update you when we have all the emails.

Even when we get all these emails, they may not give us a full snapshot of the problem. It depends on if we guessed the right words that are used when emails are sent about bus cameras that work or don't work.

After 10 months trying to document this problem, and getting just little bits of information we we pushed forward and requested an interview with Superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa. We presented to him and his staff the incidents we knew about and other information obtained through sources.

This fall, new Superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa told mechanics to begin inspecting buses. This move came several months after we began asking questions. While inspections are ongoing, we still can't get the maintenance records. We're back to the security excuse.

"Getting those answers has been pretty close to impossible. Is the district hiding behind this security answer so they don't have to tell us what's happening with the cameras and if they are working?" Strathman asked Superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa.

"I will tell you this. I am a person who 100% works through the media community in transparency. I think transparency in the government is absolutely the top priority and I'll continue to do that. There are legal issues in the 21st century that people are hard pressed to understand," explained Avossa. "We have people who would love to harm children and would love to put us in a predicament like that."

"What is the big security risk?" Strathman asked.

"The security risk is identifying individual buses that may be having technical issues and therefore exposing vulnerability for staff and others who may wish to do  harm for our students," Avossa said.

However, we want information from six months ago. Hopefully those vulnerabilities are fixed by now.

Avossa said he'd continue to push the district to release information to us. Nothing has been released.

During our interview, Avossa told us the cameras fail just 10% of the time. The district said it based that number on requests for video this school year. They said there were 1292 requests and 126 times the request could not be fulfilled.

Using that data gives you an idea of how often the cameras fail, but it only tells you when they fail during a critical moment. How about all the other times they're found to not be working during the routine inspection that's not done?

"I'd like nothing better than to be able to assure the community we are spending the dollars wisely. And if there is something we need to do better I'm the first to own it. We have made plenty of mistakes in the district and we'll make plenty more but we can only solve it if we work together," Avossa said.

Tonight on NewsChannel 5 at 11, we're revealing problems with Palm Beach County School bus cameras. We're getting you answers so you know whose watching to make sure the cameras on your child's bus are working.

Check back for more updates on our journey down Document Road.
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