ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — When her 1st-grader didn’t get off the bus one day last week, Amber Tipton started to panic.
“It was the scariest thing that I’ve ever gone through,” Tipton told KXAN. “All I could think about was, he’s 7, so he got off on the wrong stop and I have no idea where he’s at.”
After calling the school, she found out her son, Gunner Rex, was in the office at Callison Elementary School waiting to be picked up. An administrator told her a substitute teacher had mixed up her son with another little boy and sent him on the bus instead of Gunner.
She was relieved, but she said the administrator kept calling the situation a “minor” mistake.
“That was infuriating,” Tipton said, “because it’s a serious thing that should have never happened once, let alone twice.”
A similar situation happened earlier in the school year with her daughter, she said. Someone at the same school told her she was going to be picked up, so she waited in the office instead of getting on the bus.
A Round Rock ISD spokesperson said the district can’t talk about individual incidents due to privacy concerns, but mix-ups like this do happen.
“It’s been a security issue for a while that, hey, we need to know who gets on, who gets off, where they got on, where they got off,” said Tina Fausett, the district’s transportation director.
Because the district wouldn’t comment on this incident, KXAN was unable to learn what happened to the other little boy who got on the bus.
There are procedures in place, Fausett said, for what to do if a child is mistakenly put on a bus he or she shouldn’t be on. “Our process on that is to take them as soon as we can, depends on our route, back to the campus. And they’re safe from the time they get on until they get back to the campus.”
If a student misses the bus, a staff member at the school calls the transportation department, which then gets in touch with the driver on the dispatch radio. The driver will then go back to the school to pick up the student, often after finishing the rest of the route. “Meanwhile, the parent is called and informed of the situation,” a district spokesperson said in a follow-up email.
Tipton said she never got a call from the school or district. But the district hopes a new program it’s piloting this year will eliminate the need for such calls in the future.
The program, called SMART Tag, uses identification cards to keep better track of who’s getting on and off the bus and where.
Each student radio-frequency identification (RFID) card that he or she scans when getting on and off the bus. If a student is not supposed to be on that bus, a tablet next to the driver flashes a red screen and warning sound indicating the student shouldn’t be boarding. It also shows the student’s correct route number.
If a student loses the card, the driver can manually check him or her into the bus. Parents can opt to get notifications on an app when their kids get on and off the bus.
The district is testing out the system with a group of students. “By the end of the school year, we’re hoping to have all 54 campuses up and running,” Fausett said.
Several other local school districts use a SMART Tag system, including Georgetown, Lake Travis, Eanes, and Liberty Hill ISDs. Manor ISD is piloting the program for its pre-K students this year. Austin ISD tested it out in 2017, but decided not to implement it district-wide.
Tipton likes the sound of the new procedure. It would have shown her Gunner wasn’t on the bus long before she realized he hadn’t made it to the bus stop.
“To have that right there to get to know that your child is safe and on the bus is a wonderful system… I feel like they should have done it a long time ago.”