Surveillance in schools - Leader-Telegram: Andrew Dowd

Surveillance in schools

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Posted: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 5:30 pm

A few months after the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the suburban southern Wisconsin high school I attended bought surveillance cameras. This became the subject of the first news article I ever wrote.

Once the cameras appeared, students of Verona Area High School wondered if they were going to be used to protect us from harm or spy on our every move.

In an interview, the vice principle said they were intended for neither. And If "something" were to happen, cameras wouldn't stop it, he candidly told me.

They were put in place to document vandalism to the school building.

Such is the same for cameras that have been in Eau Claire schools for more than a decade. While they may occasionally be used to follow up on bad student behavior, their primary purpose is property protection, according to district officials.

Eau Claire school district deputy superintendent Tim Leibham said the cameras are meant to pick up "exceptional situations" like vandalism.

"The primary focus was on the exterior of the building for any sorts of criminal activity, break-ins," he said.

Leibham served 11 years as Memorial High's principal, preceded by four years as vice principal. Off the top of his head, he recalled a couple instances of graffiti vandals and a bike thief caught with the help of surveillance camera footage at Memorial.

If a student reports a fight in the halls or something else that warrants a follow-up, Leibham said the surveillance tapes have been used to confront parties involved.

But nobody sits at a desk watching a live feed from the cameras, Leibham said, and the tape even records over itself after a couple days unless footage needs to be pulled to investigate activity.

"Clearly, no one is sitting there monitoring student behavior," he said.

Installing security cameras began about a dozen years ago with Eau Claire's secondary schools, said Charlie Kramer, the district's buildings and grounds director. Elementary schools got them a couple years ago.

They're put in place to watch hallways, other open areas in schools and the building exteriors.

As part of a referendum passed in April, four schools will get upgrades of their existing CCTV - closed-circuit television - systems. Given the $51.85 million to be spent on additions and renovation, upgrading security cameras is a pretty small part - $40,000 for all four buildings (Putnam, Robbins and Putnam Heights elementary and DeLong Middle).

Leibham expressed similar sentiments that my vice principal did more than a decade ago, saying that cameras can't prevent problems. They record them to hopefully catch the perpetrators.

Surveillance cameras are rapidly becoming a ubiquitous part of everyday life, for children and adults alike. While they're often called "security" cameras and their presence might deter some from doing bad things, it's debatable if they've actually made us any safer.

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