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Harwood School Board votes for internal security cameras at the school

After a wide-ranging discussion, the Harwood Union School Board voted 5-1 to install eight security cameras in the public areas of the school (hallways, lobbies, etc.).

Board members Dan Raddock, Russ Bielke, Stephen Sands, Dale Smeltzer and board chair Deb Hunter voted in favor of the cameras. David Goodman was opposed.

The board took that action at their June 19 meeting after hearing a proposal from the finance committee that to add 14 cameras (6 outside and 8 inside) to the school will cost $34,760. That number, combined with recently purchased surveillance cameras for school buses, brings the school's surveillance costs to close to $50,000.

The board currently does not have a policy governing how the cameras will be used inside the school and until such a policy is developed to access what ends up on the cameras, the board will use the same policy governing the bus surveillance cameras and will also turn the cameras off from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. – until the community, including students, and the board can develop a policy specific for the use of internal surveillance in the school.

During the discussion, board member and Waterbury rep David Goodman questioned the need for haste on the cameras, expressing concern about the cost and about making the decision without having an open discussion about surveillance with the community and the students.

"I thought we were going to get an external-only camera bid, after our last meeting. I feel internal cameras deserve a lot more discussion with the community as to whether it's something we want to do in our community. It's one thing to upgrade the outside system, but it's a big line to cross to put eight cameras on the inside and a very big price tag. I have very strong reservations about a system that turns all our students into suspects every time they walk into school. There are a diversity of approaches that other schools take. This is not standard practice in Vermont," Goodman said.

This spring Harwood Union began rethinking its surveillance system as a major act of vandalism caused severe damage to the school in May.

School co-principal Lisa Atwood said that her recommendation is to have the cameras inside and outside.

"In my opinion it does not make the students suspects. The cameras would be in hallways and public areas. If the kids are doing what they should be doing there's no reason for concern. When I look at the issue we've had of being asked to ID the kids responsible for the vandalism and pranks – without cameras we can't ID the kids and we've had a lot of vandalism over the past few years."

Atwood said that administrators had to spend increasing time dealing with such incidents and that it distracted from their other duties.

Board chair Hunter polled board members in the room, seeking their thoughts. Board member Dale Smeltzer said she felt the cost to the administration is significant without cameras and said she felt that if the school relied on the same access policy it had created for bus surveillance, it would work.

Board member Stephen Sands pointed out that Harwood has had to make a significant number of insurance claims. He said that where Harwood is located, quite a distance from any responding law agencies, made it important to watch the public areas.

"Students who are not doing anything, it's not going to be an issue for them, and it may make students who want to do something think twice," Sands said.

Board member Russ Bielke spoke in favor of the cameras, citing his experience with other schools in Vermont and a shooting incidence in Essex several years ago, where, for the lack of camera, several people were detained in police cars for many hours.

"I'm sympathetic to what David is saying and I think it comes down to, where do you have an expectation of privacy? What is so offensive about what the NSA is doing is that they're snooping where we have an expectation of privacy. I don't have a problem with this because there is no expectation of privacy in the public areas of the school," board member Dan Raddock said.

Goodman questioned the board's process, noting that at the last meeting the group had agreed to get pricing on internal and external cameras and then have a public meeting to talk to the community about internal cameras.

"This is a special school. We value student voice. If we have a community meeting and the community loves the ideas of cameras, we can proceed," Goodman said.

Hunter asked Goodman if having the cameras running only after school hours would sit better with him.

"No, we have no data on efficacy. We can't find any data that shows that cameras change behaviors. The only thing we know for sure is that everyone is a suspect who comes in this building and we're asking the community to pick up a $50,000 price tag," Goodman added.

Atwood pointed out that bigger schools have resource officers who handle vandalism issues and don't pull their administrators into it. She suggested that rather than have a public meeting to discuss the matter with the public, that a section of the next regular meeting agenda be devoted to it.

Raddock said he felt like it was the second time the board was discussing it and people had not turned out to object.

"It was a line item on the finance committee's agenda to report to the board," Goodman said.

Washington West Supervisory Union superintendent Brigid Scheffert said that the board could purchase and install the cameras and then implement them in the fall after a policy was in place.

"Then when we unveil the policy, that is the opportunity to get the public response. If we got it wrong...," Raddock said.

"We threw the money away," Goodman finished.

Smelzter moved that the board accept the 14-camera bid with the proviso that they be turned off from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., until a policy can be approved by the board to finalize how the cameras are to be used. Bielke seconded the motion.

"So we install them and what if we hear from the community that they didn't want it and we've wasted the money? What's the problem with waiting until the next meeting which is two months out? Why wouldn't we wait and solicit input from the community? Why the rush?" Goodman asked.

"I feel they are necessary in the school and that as an elected official I have a responsibility to make this decision for the school," Smeltzer said.

"And if the community objects?"Goodman persisted.

"The board can make a decision to support the direction of the community – or not. If 200 people showed up and opposed internal installed cameras, the board could still make the decision to keep them. If there's a large outpouring of people, what is the board's position?" asked Atwood.

Raddock said, "It is known in my community that the board is talking about this. I'm comfortable making the decision and if I'm wrong, I'm often wrong."

Board member Chris Koliba was not present at the meeting.

 

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