Lawsuit over bus camera technology isn’t likely to clear the water for schools

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Dallas County Schools lost its mandate last November, when voters approved dissolving the mismanaged bus services agency, but the effects of corruption there are still playing out across the state.

The latest problem: allegations that DCS officials illegally gave away trade secrets involving technology used to capture video footage of motorists who fail to stop for school buses loading or unloading. Sources told The Texas Monitor that a lawsuit on the issue is set to be settled this week. However, school districts around the state, which got involved with DCS and its scheme to make money off fines against motorists, may be dealing with the resulting confusion for months to come.

DCS provided bus service to several North Texas school districts before mismanagement led to a $130 million budget shortfall and to the ill-fated camera scheme. A series of stories by the NBC-TV affiliate in Dallas on the camera company, Force Multiplier Solutions, and DCS Superintendent Rick Sorrells led to the federal indictment of Sorrells and a salesman for the camera system company. Both have pleaded guilty to corruption charges.  Force Multiplier CEO Robert Leonard is currently under federal investigation over his connections to Sorrells.

The scheme involving the so-called “stop-arm” cameras was an important part of the investigation that helped bring down DCS. It involved multimillion-dollar payoffs by the camera company to Sorrells.

Under Texas law, motorists are supposed to stop for school buses that are picking up or letting off students. Buses are equipped with a mechanical arm that extends a stop sign to warn drivers.

In 2011, DCS made a deal with Louisiana-based Force Multiplier to install cameras on the buses to videotape motorists who failed to stop. As with red-light cameras, which have fallen out of favor in many places, the system involved sending violation notices and fine assessments to drivers based on the videos.

DCS and Force Multiplier joined forces in 2012 to offer the bus cameras to Texas school districts in exchange for a cut of any fines generated.

Dozens of school districts around the state, including 12 in the Dallas area, signed up for the program. North East ISD in San Antonio last year generated $1.7 million in fines from the program, the most of any district in the state. However, the scheme never made a profit for DCS itself, because the agency had bought the cameras upfront, because some districts dropped out, and because many tickets were dismissed.

The question of which companies and agencies are in a position to make money off the bus video setup has become as complicated as the rest of the DCS saga.

In July 2017, as things were falling apart for DCS, Virginia-based BusPatrol bought the U.S. technology rights to the camera system from Force Multiplier, with the intent to again license the technology to DCS.

DCS, meanwhile, had been having trouble getting Force Multiplier to fulfill its commitment to provide information to the bus agency and to law enforcement agencies charged with assessing fines.

Former DCS Police Chief Scott Peters told The Texas Monitor that Leatha Mullins (who had stepped in as acting DCS superintendent after Sorrells was forced out) instructed him to give another company, American Traffic Solutions, access to a few cameras, so that ATS could take over management of the technology.

DCS soon had bigger problems, however. The federal government had begun investigating the agency, the Texas Legislature was worried, and in November, Dallas County voters approved disbanding the agency. A dissolution committee was set up to oversee the shutdown, sell off DCS assets, and pay off its debts.

In May 2018, BusPatrol filed suit against DCS and the dissolution committee. The suit alleges that Peters, the former DCS police chief, gave BusPatrol’s trade secrets to ATS. The complaint says that the camera system “run[s] on BusPatrol’s proprietary software” and that DCS’ actions allowed ATS, a competitor, to reverse-engineer the technology.

“I did nothing without [DCS administration] signing off,” Peters told The Texas Monitor. “We were having trouble getting Force Multiplier to help us handle the technology on these cameras, and ATS told us they might be able to make this work. They came here and asked for a couple of units, and [Mullins] said, ‘Send ‘em.’ ”

None of the parties involved would discuss terms of the expected settlement. However, Jean Souliere, CEO at BusPatrol, said the agreement will put the software “in the hands of people who will invest in it.”

“All the litigation that you’ve seen is BusPatrol trying to protect our intellectual property that we spent millions to acquire,” he said. “We had to make sure our program didn’t suffer from greedy, incompetent people who had their hands on some really good technology.”

The suit alleges that, using BusPatrol’s proprietary information, ATS intended to establish its own version of the program and then sell that to districts, cutting BusPatrol out of the process. However, state District Judge Eric Moye last month dropped ATS from the lawsuit.

BusPatrol has taken its own share of criticism over the video system. The company was still sending out ticket notices to motorists as late as February, using letterhead from Texas towns where the system was still being used in buses.

However, the dissolution committee had told school districts in January that DCS has no contract with BusPatrol and that the company is not authorized to collect the money. The letter to districts also alleged that BusPatrol had removed cameras, which DCS said did not belong to the company, from some buses.

“The only time cameras were touched was to move them from old buses to new buses,” Souliere said.

Neither dissolution committee CEO Alan King nor committee general counsel Amanda Davis responded to calls and emails seeking comment for this story.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

7 COMMENTS

  1. Always remember, NHTSA data shows that 69% of the under-age-19 pedestrians killed in School Transportation Related Crashes from 1999 through 2016 were killed by the BUSES, not by passing cars. Stop arm cameras are almost entirely about money, not safety.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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