'Big Brother' concerns over school cameras

By Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2008
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Video surveillance cameras are becoming a common feature of student life - now even in middle and elementary schools - as local officials seek greater security for children and school property.

In district after district, the desire for additional security and the cost of replacing or maintaining property destroyed by vandalism have routinely overridden qualms about possible invasion of privacy.

In Lexington, the Clarke Middle School will be the latest to have a video security system installed next summer - becoming the third school in town to have one - but school officials have yet to draw up a written policy governing safeguards of civil liberties for those under camera surveillance.

"I would expect them to have a system in place to keep them private and for police use only," said Debora Hoard, copresident of the Parent Student Teacher Association at Lexington High School. "If there was an incident, then I would expect them to use them - but not the kind of daily monitoring that a Big Brother society would make me think of."

Lexington School Committee chairwoman Helen Lutton Cohen conceded there are no written rules in place that spell out who can see the surveillance tapes, how long they are kept, and what they are used for, to protect privacy.

Still, Cohen said the understanding among officials is that the video feeds will not be monitored continuously, just after an incident, and that only school administrators will have access to them. Only if it appears a crime might have been committed will the tapes be turned over to police, she said.

Cohen said she believes the cameras are needed. "The amount of vandalism that goes on at some of the schools requires that we have some of these cameras," she said. "None of them are in private places that intrude on people."

In the northwest suburbs, Burlington, Chelmsford, Medford, Stoneham, Winchester, and Woburn, among others, also have some sort of security system in at least one or all of their schools. In some cases, the cameras monitor only the front door or parking lot, or both, while in others, they are trained on various areas inside.

Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said it's unfortunate that so many school systems are opting for surveillance cameras. "It does turn the school more into a prison," she said.

But many school officials swear by them.

In Medford, an elementary and a middle school built in 2001 had security systems as part of the architectural design - the usual practice these days - as did three more schools built two years later, said the district's director of management and operations, John Buckley. Since then, he said, "vandalism dropped dramatically," and some of those responsible for damage to schools have been identified on camera and charged with a crime. The systems "are working out very well," he said.

In Lexington, two new elementary schools - Fiske and Harrington - already have the security systems included as part of the design package. In each of the schools, 12 cameras are placed around the outside perimeter where there are doors, and in the parking lots, said Patrick Goddard, Lexington director of public facilities. By monitoring the camera at the front door, which is locked, officials can control who enters the schools.

Goddard said the security cameras, along with lighting, "absolutely" serve as a deterrent to crime, with no vandalism at the schools with the cameras.

The Clarke security system, paid for by a $46,750 federal grant to the Lexington Police Department, will have cameras in the hallways and stairwells inside, in addition to outside surveillance. Once all three schools have security systems, upkeep and replacement parts could cost the schools about $5,000 to $10,000 annually, Goddard said.

Lexington Police Lieutenant Joseph O'Leary, who manages the detective bureau, said the primary reason for the security systems is to protect children. In addition to controlling entry to the schools, the system can give police a real-time live video feed in the event of an emergency requiring a lockdown, he said.

"We don't know what's going to happen next month, next year, or the year after, but the more we do now to prepare for an event, the better off we're going to be," he said.

O'Leary said property damage at the schools also has become a concern in recent years. In addition to routine graffiti and vandalism, for example, about a year ago, sabotage of a sprinkler system at the Diamond Middle School caused about $100,000 worth of damage from flooding, and a couple of years ago, Clarke Middle School had two Molotov cocktails hurled at one of the classrooms one night, breaking windows.

O'Leary said town officials are sensitive to protecting civil liberties.

"I think part of this is in getting a buy-in from the community," he said. "We don't want to look over anyone's shoulder. We understand there are privacy issues."

Hoard, mother of three, said she did not know about the new surveillance system until informed by a reporter last week.

"I'm a little bit saddened, but not surprised," she said.

She believes that even students as young as middle-school age can engage in wrongful behavior, she said. The cameras could catch them in the act and allow administrators and parents to teach them their actions have consequences, she said, although she added she suspects the incidents would be few and far between. "I think they will be about the most boring videos you'd ever want to watch."

Still, she said, the prevalence of surveillance in society is upsetting. "If it works to stop them, maybe it's the price we pay," she said.

Connie Paige can be reached at

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