School Board ponders video cameras in district schools |

School Board ponders video cameras in district schools

Mike McCollum

Security cameras mounted inside local schools could give authorities a means to both prevent and react to crimes against people and property on school district grounds. While many administrators support exterior surveillance, the school board has postponed making a decision on interior cameras citing privacy and civil liberties concerns.

— A school official is questioning a plan to install security cameras in Steamboat schools, citing authoritarian measures in George Orwell’s classic novel “1984.”

“For something like cameras, even with kids in the elementary schools to be monitored by cameras, I don’t want to be part of the … acceptance of no right to privacy,” said Steamboat Springs School Board member John DeVincentis, a former principal at Strawberry Park Elementary School. “That is one of our Constitutional rights – a right to privacy.”

Such cameras would be part of a $533,000 federal grant to help boost security measures at all four schools in the Steamboat Springs School District. The “Secure Our Schools” grant will be administered through the city of Steamboat Springs.

New security equipment could include external school surveillance cameras, which record activity outside of school buildings; electronic key card access systems; hand-held and mobile radios; and bi-directional radio amplifiers to improve communications.

To help match the grant, district officials have set aside $250,000 from the $29.5 million bond issue to build a new Soda Creek Elementary School and expand Strawberry Park, passed by voters in November 2006. The district also plans to ask the Education Fund Board, which manages the city’s half-cent sales tax for education, for $250,000 throughout a two-year period.

The School Board unanimously voted Monday to authorize interim Superintendent Sandra Smyser to direct district staff to acquire the 800 MHz radios, which will cost the district $145,284.

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But board members did not authorize the purchase of additional security equipment – including “internal” cameras that would be placed inside schools – until community support is weighed and more information is presented.

Incidences common

Rick Denney, the district’s director of facilities, presented the grant to the School Board on Monday with Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Joel Rae and Public Safety Director J.D. Hays.

“If we had adequate supervision and lots of hall monitors then maybe we wouldn’t need as many cameras, but manpower is expensive,” said Denney, adding that Steamboat schools are frequently vandalized.

According to data submitted to the School Board by the Steamboat Springs Police Department, 158 criminal incidents were reported on school property to police from Sept. 2005 to Aug. 2007. Schools reported 40 cases of stolen property, six cases of underage drinking, five assaults, five reports of vandalism and four incidents of disorderly conduct. Officers also were called to schools five times for reports of student possession or sale of drugs.

Denney said numerous incidents are not reported to police.

Modern times

Denney noted that being under video surveillance is just another aspect of living in the technology age.

“The cameras do take away some of the perceptions of your rights,” he said. “But wherever you go in today’s society, (cameras) are present. And whether you know it or not, that information is being recorded.”

Board member Laura Anderson replied, “Places like 7-Eleven, you have a choice to go into : kids don’t have a choice to go into the school.”

Rae described the grant as “not reactive, but preventative.”

Denney said district officials were alerted to the need after a 2006 security audit showed a lack of safety and crime prevention measures in Steamboat schools.

The School Board also read a statement from Steamboat Springs High School Principal Mike Knezevich, who said he supports external cameras and expenditures on radio equipment, but not internal cameras.

“I believe, as do the overwhelming majority of staff and students, that cameras inside of the building would radically change the culture of our building,” he said. “We work so hard and have created an atmosphere of trust among our students and an environment where they feel comfortable and welcome in the high school.”

The police department has provided a school resource officer in the high school since 1997.

Call for protocol

DeVincentis said he supports external surveillance of the schools and would accept internal monitoring if it was for safety, not for discipline.

“But I don’t see them creating any safety,” he said. “Anything could happen, and all you can do is go back and look at the camera. Is anyone safer because of that? No.”

School Board member Lisa Brown said more discussion should occur before a decision is made about internal cameras.

“We can’t just put cameras in our schools, even if it’s free, without a plan and a protocol on what these things would be used for,” she said.

DeVincentis said he will listen to community input, but his resolve against policing students with cameras is strong.

“If it comes down to a vote, I would still vote my feelings,” he said. “But I accept the right of whatever the people in this community want, but I advise against it.”

– To reach Mike McCollum, call 871-4208

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