‘Operation School Watch’ provides extra patrol in school zones to keep kids safe

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GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. -- As hundreds of school buses hit the roads Monday, local law enforcement officers in Guilford County will work together in a first-of-its-kind extended operation to crackdown on drivers who illegally pass buses and other school zone violations that put children in danger.

It’s called Operation School Watch.

Every year, North Carolina school bus drivers record thousands of illegal and potentially deadly stop arm violations.

New laws were passed following the death of an 11-year-old Kernersville boy, Hasani Wesley, that strengthens penalties against drivers who illegally pass school buses.

But it’s an issue police in the Piedmont fear is only getting worse.

“We've seen an increase of distracted drivers,” said Greensboro Police Officer J.B. Price. “We're starting to become a little more concerned for the safety of the students as they’re crossing."

That’s why Greensboro police are partnering for the first time ever with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol and Guilford County Sheriff’s Office for a two week enforcement initiative on school buses and school zones.

GPD says this includes cracking down on school zone speeding, seat belt use and pedestrian school cross walk violations and will include both marked and unmarked police cars.

"We may have officers following school buses, in school buses,” said Greensboro Police Officer Lauren Lewis. “Looking for violations."

It’s the same group of officers and resources used to aggressively go after drivers who break the law along busy roads like Wendover and Battleground Avenues in Greensboro; the goal being to target every school zone in the City of Greensboro.

"It's not just my child, or your child,” said Lewis. “Just think about someone's child out there that you're putting in danger."

GPD officers will also extend coverage into the county with deputies and troopers helping inside city limits.

“We think it's important,” said Price. “The fact being we don't know the mind of a student or child as they decide to cross a roadway."

Greensboro police are also reminding people of the stop arm laws. The only exceptions to stopping for a school bus with its lights on and stop arm out, is for cars driving in the opposite direction along roads that have four or more lanes with a median or turn lane in the center.

In these cases, only cars traveling in the same direction as the bus are required to stop but police still ask drivers to be cautious.

"If you ever have a question as to whether you need to stop or not, just go ahead and stop,” said Lewis.

A statewide effort to track school bus stop arm violations revealed 197 violations in Guilford County during this year’s one day count in March.

That’s a decrease from 2013’s count when 320 violators were reported in Guilford County.

However, Forsyth County’s bus drivers actually recorded an increase this year from 91 violations to 139.

"What we get mostly is being distracted or not paying attention,” said Price. “And, they'll go by not even seeing the school bus which is extremely hazardous.”

Greensboro police say this is a misdemeanor and if you hit someone, that’s a felony.

Speeding in a school zone will cost you $438.

"We've had many children in the state killed because people just aren't paying attention or they think they can make it,” said Lewis.

Greensboro police say the department’s traffic unit will likely return later in the school year for additional emphasis patrols.

As part of the effort to make school zones safer for children, Guilford County Schools and Greensboro police have partnered to give bus drivers tools to report stop arm violators online, allowing officers to investigate and potentially file charges.

The two week enforcement begins Aug. 25 and will run until Sept. 5.

For more information about NC school bus safety, visit www.ncbussafety.org/Stoparm/index.html