High school tightens security

US provides funds for 125 cameras

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / October 22, 2009

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In a move that reflects a growing trend in the area, Lexington High School plans to install 125 security cameras by New Year’s Day, an effort that school officials and police say will improve safety and security but which some civil-liberties activists view with concern.

It will be the fourth school in Lexington equipped with the recording devices, meaning more than half of the town’s students will be under camera surveillance, said School Committee chairwoman Margaret Coppe.

Superintendent Paul Ash said the high school’s cameras, which are being funded by a $250,000 federal grant, will improve safety throughout the campus.

“It allows us to have more control of who comes in and out of the doors,’’ Ash said.

But while the cameras are increasingly common in Greater Boston districts, with the list including Burlington, Medford, and Woburn, the practice of putting students under surveillance continues to raise concerns about the balance between privacy rights and security.

In Newton, the installation of cameras at the city’s high schools without the public’s knowledge set off a debate last year. School Committee member Dori Zaleznik said the cameras have been removed, but a security policy approved by her board allows them to be installed temporarily in certain instances, such as an outbreak of vandalism, based on a principal’s written request.

The use of surveillance cameras in other public areas also has caused controversy.

Brookline recently rolled back the use of surveillance cameras at major intersections after Town Meeting requested that the cameras be taken down.

Sarah Wunsch, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said that in a free society, government should not be watching people all of the time.

“The more we make our schools like a prison, the more we get away from what I consider good education,’’ she said.

Interviews with students at Lexington High found varying opinions about the security cameras.

Peter White, a freshman, said he didn’t mind the 32 cameras that were installed early this year at Clarke Middle School, when he was there as an eighth-grader.

Students were told of the cameras, he said, and he credited their presence with helping stop smoke bombs from being set off in the building.

“Apparently, it saved a lot of trouble,’’ White said. “It didn’t bother me.’’

But Jazzmyne Johnson, also a freshman, didn’t like the idea of surveillance cameras at the high school.

“You don’t need to be watching everybody,’’ said Johnson, adding that she considers the surveillance to be “rude.’’

Police Lieutenant Joe O’Leary said that in the event of violence or another emergency at the school, administrators can show surveillance footage to police and allow emergency responders to know what they are getting into before they arrive.

In addition to Clarke Middle School, cameras have been installed at Lexington’s Fiske and Harrington elementary schools. But O’Leary said that police have not viewed any footage from the cameras.

While the Police Department worked to secure grants for the cameras at the middle school and high school from the US Department of Justice, the devices, once installed, are under the control of the schools, he said.

“We don’t want to be looking over people’s shoulders,’’ O’Leary said. “We don’t have control over the technology. The schools will share with us what they want to share with us.’’

Clarke Middle School principal Steven Flynn said the cameras at his school do not record audio, and the system’s central computer is kept in a locked room.

Cameras are not inside classrooms at the middle school, and are not in places such as bathrooms and locker rooms. Instead, Flynn said, the cameras are set up in public gathering spaces, such as hallways, the auditorium and cafeteria.

Flynn said he and his assistants have used the cameras to investigate incidents at the school, such as students setting off “stink bombs.’’ But since the cameras were installed at the beginning of this year, Flynn said, there have not been any incidents at the school that necessitated showing footage to police.

He said he believes the cameras have been a positive addition, helping to deter vandalism.

“It’s not Big Brother watching,’’ Flynn said.

In Medford, where every public school has security cameras, Superintendent Roy Belson said the district limits the number of people who have access to camera footage. Belson said he can view footage from his computer, and on more than one occasion the cameras have helped officials catch vandals damaging school property.

“People are concerned about safety and security. . .,’’ Belson said. “This gives us another tool.’’

O’Leary said the cameras will be installed in the hallways and other common areas at Lexington High, and signs will be posted to notify people of their presence. The district’s facilities director, Pat Goddard, said officials anticipate installing the cameras between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Lexington High principal Natalie Cohen said that with four buildings on the school’s campus and many doors to monitor, the cameras will increase safety for students and staff.

“The purpose they will have here is to prevent crime and protect safety,’’ Cohen said.

Coppe said that while the district wants the cameras to help secure the schools, the School Committee needs to develop a policy for the district about the use of the cameras and footage.

“We’re very concerned that we maintain the privacy of our students and that we maintain control of the tapes,’’ she said.

But if serious vandalism or other criminal activity occurs in the schools, Coppe said, the district will provide recordings to police.

“Fortunately, that hasn’t happened.’’