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One day this January at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, 17 year-old junior Biko Edwards was stopped by Assistant Principal Val Lewis and a uniformed school safety agent while rushing down a hall to make his chemistry lab. Though Biko said he begged the staffers to let him pass, Lewis got angry and ordered the safety agent – an officer of the New York Police Department – to arrest Biko, a good student and soccer standout. Biko says he was pepper-sprayed, pushed into a wall, and handcuffed. He was suspended for four days and faces five criminal charges, including for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

When Biko’s mother went to Tilden the next day to review footage of her son’s arrest, which had been captured by security cameras installed in the school hallways, school staff denied her permission. Once she was able to view the footage on a computer, she saw that it was not the raw footage, but had been edited. Biko says that even the timestamp had been changed.

The cameras that captured this incident are part of the Department of Education’s new Internet Protocol Digital Video Surveillance (IPDVS) system, intended to reduce violence in public schools and serve as a tool for law enforcement. The brainchild of City Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Queens), the creation of IPDVS was passed into law by the City Council on Nov. 10, 2004.

Two and a half years later, camera installation has gained momentum even as concerns about the police atmosphere in city schools are being voiced ever louder and more frequently. It’s an academic environment in which principals “are becoming corrections wardens,” according to State Senator Bill Perkins, who was a City Councilmember representing Harlem at the time of the vote.

While Vallone and Department of Education (DOE) officials hail the system as a success, based on positive feedback from school administrators, others are raising questions about the implications of such wide-reaching surveillance in public schools. The public schools already are manned by 4,625 safety agents – a larger force than the entire police departments of Baltimore, Boston, or San Diego. In addition to this, the new systems called for in Local Law 52 include cameras linked by a network to a main server in each school. Video is watched live by school safety agents from a monitoring console. Design requirements state that “both live and archived video can be viewed locally on LAN (Local Area Networks) and remotely over DOE WAN (Wireless Area Networks).”

A large high school such as Tilden may be equipped with 64 to 96 cameras, which cover all exterior doors, the cafeteria and auditorium, selected hallways and stairwells and some outdoor locations such as athletic fields, entrances and loading docks. Although a “fair number of schools” were equipped with video cameras before IPDVS, according to DOE Planning, Research and Development Director Robert Weiner, New York City public schools had no single integrated video system until now.

Council Votes for Video

Local Law 52 called for the installation of security cameras in schools “where the chancellor, in consultation with the New York City police department, deems such cameras appropriate for safety purposes.” Cameras were to be placed in “any area of the school where individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” thus excluding bathrooms, classrooms, and gym locker rooms (although students’ lockers are under video surveillance, as they are located in hallways). The legislation also called for a DOE report on “potential installation of cameras” in all schools to be submitted to City Council by the end of 2006 – but Council has not received it. According to both DOE and NYPD representatives, the police have yet to sign off on the report.

Though a number of members spoke for and against the bill back in the fall of 2004, Vallone’s school cameras bill passed with 45 votes in favor, one against, and one abstention. The program was allocated a budget of $120 million dollars over five years. “That is real progress in focusing on the fight against violence in our schools,” Vallone said at the original hearing. The bill’s approval by City Council and Mayor Bloomberg was a blip on the radar of local media at the time, perhaps not surprising in a city where use of both outdoor and indoor surveillance cameras has mushroomed over the past decade and enjoys the support of the mayor and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

As of this month, IPDVS is installed in 60 buildings and 163 schools (because some buildings are home to more than one school), according to DOE. Documents from the School Construction Authority (SCA), which oversees all public school construction, indicate there are anywhere from six to 10 cameras in schools smaller than 50,000 square feet, while there can be up to 96 cameras in schools larger than 350,000 square feet, such as large high schools. IPDVS cameras are mandated for every new SCA project, and Councilman Vallone says another 59 schools are currently being equipped with cameras.

In addition to being watched live by school safety agents, who are part of the NYPD’s School Safety Division, all camera footage is streamed over a local area network to a central computer server in the school, and is also accessible from DOE headquarters in Manhattan. Weiner from DOE says footage is stored in the onsite servers at schools, and school principals have ultimate say over who has access to the stored video.

The video is stored for 50 days, after which it is erased unless the principal or another school official indicates that a recorded incident should be preserved, according to Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), chair of Council’s Technology in Government Committee. If footage is stored, it is saved to a disk and sent to a technology branch of DOE. “These records are supposed to be treated like student records – they’re confidential,” Brewer said. “Years ago, there was a demarcation between school safety agents and the police – [today] there’s a fine line.”

The role of school safety agents has been criticized in recent months by both student groups and civil rights organizations. The Urban Youth Collaborative, a student activist group, has staged protests and spoken out against the “criminalizing” atmosphere of NYC public schools. In a report on school policing released March 18, the New York Civil Liberties Union stated that “no effective mechanism exists to hold SSAs accountable for inappropriate or abusive behavior.” That’s because the agents operate outside the jurisdiction of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent body that deals with complaints against regular officers. Incidents involving them are ostensibly dealt with by the department’s Internal Affairs Unit, a unit often faulted by critical observers for its lack of transparency and slowness to act. The NYPD refused City Limits’ requests for an interview with School Safety Division Deputy Chief James A. Secreto.

What’s Being Watched

Whether surveillance cameras are effective in reducing school crime is not clear. In Mayor Bloomberg’s preliminary Management Report for fiscal year 2007, data showed a 21 percent jump in major school crime from July through October 2006: 348 incidents were reported over the four-month period, as opposed to 287 incidents over the same period the previous year. The rise was largely attributed to 197 cases of grand larceny, the sort of crime surveillance cameras are supposed to deter or solve.

“I can only imagine that the increase would have been worse without the cameras that exist,” Vallone said. DOE would not release statistics for school crime in the 163 schools where IPDVS cameras are currently operating, citing “security” concerns. According to the management report, minor crimes in schools also increased: 983 misdemeanor assaults were reported, compared to 820 incidents a year earlier, and there were 1,926 cases of trespassing as opposed to 1,614 during the same period in 2005.

When the Impact Schools initiative began in 2004, school crime had been falling for three years. The initiative is intended to reduce school crime by increasing police presence and cracking down on minor incidents of disorderly behavior. Mayor’s Management Reports show a marked decrease between fiscal 2001, when 16,338 total incidents were reported, and fiscal 2003, when 14,880 incidents were written up. In fiscal 2004, when the Impact program went into effect, reported school crime spiked to 16,516 incidents, then declined again to 15,134 during fiscal 2006.

According to DOE’s Weiner, the nine high schools in the Impact program – Campus Magnet, Canarsie, Harry S. Truman, Jamaica, John F. Kennedy, Newtown, Sheepshead Bay, Samuel J. Tilden and Walton – are top priority for camera installation, as per Mayor Bloomberg’s instructions.

A heavy police presence, random metal detector scanning, and now the installation of cameras that go along with the “Impact” designation have drawn criticism from student organizations, the NYCLU, and the Drum Major Institute. A few days after the NYCLU released its report last month, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative released a study of the New York City and Los Angeles school systems that documented “degrading treatment and abusive discipline” in both metropolitan school systems. And in 2005, a Drum Major Institute report faulted Impact Schools for being overcrowded, underfunded and including a higher percentage of African-American and Latino students than other public schools.

State of the Art Surveillance

Vallone and DOE officials claim the camera system is working smoothly and has received favorable reviews from principals.

School video surveillance, according to education policy analyst Neil McCluskey of the Cato Institute think tank in Washington, is “becoming the norm rather than the exception” across large urban school systems.

“Some people believe it would be valuable to protect kids in schools and keep out strangers who might be there to commit crimes,” McCluskey said. “But there’s an equally valid argument against it, which is you’re making schools into a police state, where people can’t freely come and go, including parents.”

SCA specifications for the systems being installed require cameras to automatically compensate for low-light situations, and there are exacting requirements for coverage angles and ranges to ensure high-level video resolution. The specs also include a list of 12 authorized installers who must be used to install the components. Of these 12 companies, eight are authorized distributors or installers of “facial recognition technology,” which extracts an image from a live video feed and tries to match that image to one stored in a database. The specs name one acceptable manufacturer for key transmitting equipment and camera: Anixter, a Glenview, Illinois-based electronic wiring company that distributes biometric technology.

Also known as “intelligent video,” facial recognition is a type of biometric technology, a method of identifying individuals using a unique physical characteristic. City officials all maintain that this technology is not part of the camera system, however.

“That comes out of the procurement world, so I don’t feel like we should speak to that, said Elayna Konstan, chief executive officer for the DOE’s Office of School Intervention and Development. That office is in charge of the IPDVS system, and takes a “team approach” to operating the system with the NYPD’s school safety division, according to Konstan.

The presence of cameras in public schools, Konstan said, “continues to ensure that our schools are safe learning environments.” IPDVS is “an invaluable tool,” she said. “We’ve heard really wonderful things about the system so far.”

SCA documents emphasize the “deterrent effect” of the IPDVS system in relation to school crime, though video footage will also be used to “provide evidence useful in student suspension hearings” as well as “investigations and court proceedings.”

Vallone characterized IPDVS as a “tool for crime-solving” that helps reduce vandalism and “keep kids in school.”

More Harm Than Good?

Vallone believes public opinion is firmly behind his program and that no one has opposed the program “other than civil liberties advocates who make a living doing that.”

But some politicians and other observers were surprised to learn what’s now standard in the outfitting of new public schools.

Bill Perkins, the state senator who as a councilmember was the sole abstainer from the vote on school cameras, voiced displeasure with the IPDVS system. Perkins said he’d like to bring the IPDVS program to a “dead halt,” hold hearings and consider intervention by the state senate.

“This is a very intrusive and potentially very dangerous technology when it comes to the rights of our children, and could very easily be misused,” Perkins said, recounting an incident in a public housing complex where a young man’s suicide was recorded by NYPD-installed cameras, and the video was later discovered on a pornographic website.

He also said there’s a racial dimension to video surveillance in public schools. “There is a racist tinge to this as far as I’m concerned – the vast majority of kids they are surveilling in this way are children of color and low income. We, as a democracy and a city especially, step across the line only when it comes to certain elements of our constituency.”

City Councilmember Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) cast the sole vote against IPDVS in 2004, and he’s still against it. “Between metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and police in schools, they’ve turned our schools into prisons,” Barron said. Expressing outrage at the $120 million price tag, Barron suggested using the funds to support arts and athletics programs at schools, as well as job and internship initiatives. In his eyes, the camera program “is not going to bring any greater safety to our schools, because a lack of security cameras is not the problem.”

Rafael Peña, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School and a youth leader with Sistas and Brothas United in the Bronx, echoed Barron’s comments about school funding. “Money is being used on security in my school – it’s not being used productively,” Peña said, referring to much-needed repairs to the gym and bathrooms at Kennedy. Moreover, Peña says his some of his classes lack up-to-date educational materials – “we’re using textbooks that are from 1995.”

City Councilmember Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan), the chair of the Education Committee, admits that Council has not kept abreast of the program. “There are a lot of questions and concerns, especially with today’s technology: this is clearly the subject for an oversight hearing,” Jackson said. Along with Perkins, Brewer and Barron, he’s in favor of further scrutiny of IPDVS.

Advocates for Children, a city public education advocacy group of long standing, takes a dim view of IPDVS. “By installing metal detectors, flooding schools with police officers, and now installing video cameras throughout so many schools, school administrators are going to heighten anxiety levels among the student body, and contribute to a feeling of separation and distrust between students and administrators,” said Chris Tan, a staff attorney.

“External oversight is critical – neither the NYPD nor the DOE can be allowed to discuss such activities without having to describe what is actually going on,” Tan said.

As for the professional civil libertarians, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman considers video surveillance a quick-fix substitute for law enforcement that threatens civil liberties. “Thus far, video surveillance in schools is problematic to begin with, but as implemented without the foresight and planning that is essential, it may well be that the problems are exacerbated,” Lieberman said.

Her organization thinks video technology can be used positively to document abuses – such as those against protesters by the NYPD during the 2004 Republican convention. But “this is rather alarming given the history of abuse in other sectors of government of video surveillance footage,” she said. “It’s a serious issue and Peter Vallone ought to be addressing the merits of our concerns,” said Lieberman.

– Ali Winston

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