Thursday, August 22, 2013

Schools aim to calm kids with bus music

Photo: Brett Flashnick for USA TODAY
Ron Barnett/Greenville (S.C.) News/USA Today

School is no carnival, but some students in South Carolina may feel like they're on a ride to the Magic Kingdom when classes start back Thursday.

That's because some school buses in this area will be playing music and prerecorded announcements from the same kind of system used on many rides and trolleys at Disney World and other theme parks.

The idea is not to entertain but to soothe — and perhaps cut down on discipline problems, said Jim Wright, director of transportation for the Horry County School District that includes this city of almost 20,000 and Myrtle Beach on the northern South Carolina coast.

"Traditionally, school buses are pretty hostile environments," he said. "We're hoping that by changing the environment and the surroundings that it will improve their mood on the bus and be a little more calm during the bus route."

The digital audio machines will be programmed with GPS data to trigger announcements about upcoming bus stops as well as messages from their principal as the bus approaches school in the morning, he said. Between announcements students will hear music, programmed to smooth away the energy that sometimes gets kids into trouble.

Executive Director Michael Martin of the Albany, N.Y.-based National Association for Pupil Transportation, which represents 2,100 school bus systems across all 50 states, said school districts have been using cameras for about 20 years for student behavior management. But Horry County is the only district he's aware of using such an audio system.

“Traditionally, school buses are pretty hostile environments. We're hoping that by changing the environment and the surroundings that it will improve their mood on the bus.”— Jim Wright, Horry County (S.C.) School District

"This seems to make a lot of sense, so I'll be very interested to see how it works," he said. "It's like having another adult on the bus, a monitor, only this is doing it with technology."

Spokeswoman Megan Benfatti of the National School Transportation Association, which represents companies that contract with schools to provide busing, said that organization doesn't know of any members using a similar system.

Wright said he got the idea from his son, Andrew, a rising high school senior who recalled enjoying riding a tram at Disney World as a youngster.

The system has been installed in 10 buses that had the most discipline referrals last year at a cost of $1,500 a bus.

Wright said he plans to track the number of incidents every nine weeks to see whether the equipment is having the desired effect. If so, he hopes to install the system in 50 more buses each year.

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