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In a Novel Effort To Curb Rowdiness, St. Louis Wires School Bus With Video

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Once known as the jumping off point for the Western frontier, St. Louis is now embarked on a distinctly 1990's pioneering role: applying video technology to relieve a perennial problem in school transportation.

The problem, familiar to school administrators everywhere, is students' rambunctiousness on buses. The solution, St. Louis officials hope, is providing compelling, and educational, video fare for their young passengers.

Late last month, the only known school bus wired to play videocassette programs made its first run on a route that serves about 200 children in six city schools.

The $15,000 experiment, funded by a retired St. Louis businessman and approved by the school board last fall, is meant to combat the "vexatious" rowdiness that has reigned on buses for years, said Daniel L. Schlafly, the businessman and former board member who dreamed up the idea.

And so far, students and school officials give the video venture two thumbs up.

"Right now the children are very excited about the whole thing," said Yetta Kilgore, principal of the Patrick Henry Elementary School, which puts 45 to 50 of its kindergarten to 5th-grade students on the bus daily.

As of last week, no reports of discipline problems had crossed her desk--a marked contrast, Ms. Kilgore said, to the minimum of six per week that would previously have come from a "good" bus.

And the bus driver reports the students are "a lot quieter than they've ever been," according to Harry L. Acker Jr., the district's director of audiovisual services.

While hesitant to claim victory, Mr. Schlafly said he was pleased with the early anecdotal evidence. "It's the way to go," he said. "Every school system has problems on buses."

Mr. Schlafly based his idea on an experiment in St. Louis several years ago in which he sponsored the use of audiocassette players and headphones by student riders. But the tape players were easily lost or damaged, he said, and the educational tapes easily replaced with pop tunes.

Most children ride the bus for about 20 minutes, Mr. Acker said, just enough time to watch tapes of educational value, including children's stories and documentaries connected to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday or Black History Month.

Five 11-inch color-television monitors mounted on the bus's ceiling and walls show the videos. The monitors are angled toward the center aisle so all riders can see, and speakers line both walls, Mr. Acker said.

The driver operates by remote control a videocassette player that sits where a glove box would be, he said.

Mr. Acker selects the videos from among the most popular ones in the district's 2,200-title video library. He said bus riders might view about 100 titles in the next 20 weeks.

The system was designed and installed by Inter-Link Systems Inc., a four-year-old Canadian company in Calgary, Alberta, that designs entertainment systems for inter-city and charter buses and trains.

David B. Gerke, the president and chief executive officer, said the St.4Louis system represents the first school bus his company has worked on, although he is discussing the idea with some Canadian districts.

Inter-Link spent seven months developing the system and about two weeks installing it, he said. The system, which runs off the bus's battery, had to pass numerous safety and durability tests.

Even though a video-equipped bus is expensive, said Mr. Schlafly, it might prove cost-effective if it significantly reduces behavior problems. The paperwork associated with discipline violations on buses "takes a tremendous amount of administrative8time," he said.

But one expert in educational media argues against using video technology for disciplinary purposes.

"I think it is dangerous that kids are always being bombarded with images [meant] for pacifying them," said Steven Goodman, executive director of the Educational Video Center in New York City, a nonprofit group that helps high-school students produce documentaries.

He said the idea would be more acceptable if the children were viewing and critiquing the work of other students or had a choice in the selection of videos.

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