School newspaper gets the scoop on hidden cameras

Teachers' union in Newton, city panel seeking explanation

Email|Print| Text size + By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / December 27, 2007

Several hidden security cameras hung in the halls of Newton South High School for months, not yet operational and apparently undetected, until reporters for the school's student newspaper started asking questions.

Now the School Committee and teachers' union say they want an explanation, and the superintendent is promising to be more forthcoming about the new security tactic before activating the cameras, intended to catch thieves.

"We probably did not introduce this security measure in a particularly great way, and we need to go back now, after vacation, with both high school principals and figure out what their security needs are and what possible steps are involved, and see how we can better communicate that policy to the public," Superintendent Jeffrey M. Young said yesterday.

Newton South's student newspaper, the Denebola, broke the story in its Dec. 19 issue under the headline "Secret Cameras installed," with an accompanying editorial criticizing administrators for not telling students they would be watched.

The editors won't say how the paper learned of the existence of the cameras, which are hidden inside dark-tinted domes or disguised as smoke alarms. But they said in a statement that the story, written by juniors Jason Kuo and Nathan Yeo, was held a month so they could get comment from the school's principal, Brian Salzer, who had been in China. He confirmed to the students that the cameras had been put in place.

"One of the premises of running the article was that the community should know and have a discussion before cameras are installed," co-editors Olivia DaDalt and Alex Schneider, both seniors, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

Young said the district spent $12,000 out of its general maintenance budget to install the cameras at the end of the summer outside of locker rooms and bathrooms, where school officials had noted several thefts of student property. He said the School Committee was not asked to sign off on the specific purchase.

Young said he was not sure why the cameras had not been activated, but said he believed it was a software issue. Once the cameras are activated, the school's principal will be able to view recordings in an effort to identify who may have been involved in wrongdoing. They were not to be continually monitored, he said.

Schools are increasingly installing security cameras, both discreet ones and easily identifiable, said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Typically, though, such cameras are used at entrances to identify intruders.

"It's largely around the issue of making sure the appropriate people come into the building, and the people who shouldn't be there don't come into the building," Koocher said. "Theft is a major issue, but so is trespassing."

He added that it is not uncommon for students to be unaware that security cameras are present. "You don't necessarily want people knowing all the time where the cameras are."

Dori Zaleznik, chairwoman of the School Committee, said it had not been informed about the cameras. She declined to comment further, saying the panel needed to be briefed by administrators.

Cheryl Turgel, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said the union has supported security cameras in the past, but teachers should not have learned about them from the student newspaper.

"It's not that security cameras are taboo, it's just the way they were done," she said.

Julie Sall of the Newton South Parent Teacher Student Organization said the group had not been informed of the camera installation, but there had been discussion about the possibility.

Still, she said protecting students is paramount. "If the security is for internal theft, frankly that would be great," she said.

John C. Drake can be reached at

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