School District mismanaging safety cameras

Security officers Carl Curtis (left) and Robert Samuels monitor the newly installed cameras at South Philadelphia High School.A recent safety audit gave the school's surveillance system high marks - unlike its findings at many other district schools.
Security officers Carl Curtis (left) and Robert Samuels monitor the newly installed cameras at South Philadelphia High School.A recent safety audit gave the school's surveillance system high marks - unlike its findings at many other district schools. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 24, 2011

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman declared last fall that security cameras were so vital to Philadelphia school safety that she had no choice but to authorize a $7.5 million, no-bid emergency contract to install them at some of the district's most dangerous schools.

"If something had happened, we would have been in the papers for failing to act," Ackerman said in a November interview.

But even before Ackerman pushed for the new cameras, school safety officials said the district had a history of failing to maintain or monitor the cameras it already had.

That conclusion is underscored in the district's own internal safety audits examined by The Inquirer. The audits, conducted during the winter, show that the cameras - if operational at all - are haphazardly monitored, and that not enough personnel are trained to use them.

District officials also acknowledged in interviews that despite the emphasis on cameras, there is still no broad, written policy governing their use. Instead, there is only a directive that states that surveillance equipment should be "routinely monitored" and "improved as needed."

Ackerman was out sick last week and unable to answer questions, but district spokeswoman Shana Kemp was no longer touting the cameras as indispensable. "We have to remember that surveillance cameras are a tool and not a panacea," she said.

Michael Lodise, president of the school police union, whose 635 full- and part-time officers are supposed to do the bulk of the monitoring, had a harsher verdict: "The cameras are useless as far as I'm concerned."

"We don't have the manpower to man the cameras," he said, and the situation may worsen because school police face massive layoffs of part-timers due to the district's $629 million budget shortfall.

The district began the safety inspections in December of its troubled "Focus 46 schools" - 19 tagged "persistently dangerous" by the state, and the remaining 27 with similar characteristics.

In the visits conducted through early March, 10 of 36 schools evaluated on surveillance were given the worst rating - "red" - for failing to have their security cameras monitored by "the appropriate personnel."

Four other schools got a "yellow," meaning they did not meet all of the standard.

Moreover, 31 schools received either a red or yellow rating in at least one of the six areas listed under camera surveillance. Those areas include: Were the cameras operating? Were appropriate personnel monitoring them? Did they cover key areas, such as hallways and parking lots? Were the images clear? Were they captured for future review? Were there blind spots?

Two buildings, Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia and Kensington Business and Finance High School, were graded red in every category.

"No cameras were functional. Has not been for approximately two years," evaluators wrote on the Feb. 16 report on Kensington.

The safety audits were made public by Mayor Nutter's office this month as part of his recent efforts to make School District operations more transparent.

The district's lack of monitoring and its nonworking cameras not only endanger the safety of students but also put the district at risk legally, some experts say.

"The school district does tend to take on a greater sense of liability if they put a camera in place and people think it's being monitored and it's not," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in California.

"What the school has done is basically document their own lack of supervision," Stephens said.

Problems with security cameras are common at school districts nationwide, experts say. Districts rush to install them as a quick fix for violence or vandalism, without thinking through the employee training and maintenance programs necessary to make their use a success, or consulting with district safety personnel on their placement.

"Few if any of these things are considered when cameras are put in," said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety & Security Services, a Cleveland consulting firm. "That unfortunately tends to be the rule rather than the exception."

In Philadelphia, newer schools got camera systems when they were built, one being the new Audenried High in Grays Ferry, which opened in 2008-09.

The limitations of cameras were illustrated when school police failed to notice and respond to prevent an attack on Audenried freshman Teshada Herring, who was assaulted in her classroom on Jan. 22, 2010.

Before the attack, the cameras showed a large group of students walking the halls for minutes, peering into classrooms, before spotting Herring and swarming her. That same morning, the cameras caught another student being knocked to the ground in a hall and kicked and punched by assailants.

Thirteen months later, on Feb. 16, district evaluators gave Audenried a yellow because the school was "still in search of training on operation of cameras for all monitoring staff."

Cameras were installed at South Philadelphia High School on a crash basis following a day of anti-Asian violence on Dec. 3, 2009. There, evaluators gave the highest marks on camera surveillance - all green.

School sources said Ackerman pushed for the emergency camera installation at 19 more schools in an effort to defuse criticism about school safety in a soon-to-be-released report based on a safety audit conducted by the state Department of Education.

The contract was awarded to IBS Communications Inc., a small minority business, after Ackerman abruptly directed her staff to have IBS replace a suburban firm that had done preliminary work on the project.

IBS had earlier received a share of the South Philadelphia High camera project.

Ackerman has said that when she learned no minority business firms were involved at South Philadelphia, she produced an IBS business card and told staff to "find some work" for the company.

The emergency project for the 19 schools was to have been completed by Nov. 30, 2010, under the plan proposed by the contractor that had begun preliminary work. But once IBS took over, the deadline was pushed back seven months to June 30.

The delay meant that the safety auditors visited most of the 19 schools covered by the IBS contract before the new cameras were installed, according to project completion dates supplied by the district.

Of the 19 schools covered by the emergency contract, 16 were graded in surveillance cameras, including a number that were using older cameras. Of those 16 schools, 13 got a yellow or red in at least one of six areas.

One was Vare Middle School, where the camera installation had been completed by Jan. 7. Auditors visiting on Feb. 10 found the cameras "fully operational" but still not properly monitored. The school received a failing grade of red in that category.

Like Vare, S.A. Douglas High in Port Richmond and Furness High in South Philadelphia got a red rating in the area of cameras not being adequately monitored by school personnel.

Two schools - Overbrook High and Gratz High in Nicetown - got a red for having cameras that were not in operation.

"Still no cameras operating in the stairwells," said the Feb. 25 Gratz report.

Five schools - West Philadelphia, Germantown, S.A. Douglas, Vaux in North Philadelphia, and Bartram in Elmwood - got yellows in at least one of those areas.

"Three cameras are not functioning," said the Bartram report. "A work ticket has been submitted to the appropriate office." The Bartram report was undated. The district said new cameras were in by Jan. 7.

The Douglas report said new cameras were being installed the day of the rating.

The report on Vaux noted: "Nine cameras have been installed. However 7 remain nonoperational." That school received a "yellow" grade on cameras in operation.

Kemp said the evaluations may have had "some inconsistencies in subjectivity."

Some raters, she said, gave schools a red if there were no cameras. Tilden is one example. Others left the form blank if there were no cameras. Still others left the form blank if there were "no issues" with cameras, she said.

When cameras are monitored, the task usually falls to school police officers. But principals regularly assign them to other duties, Lodise said.

James Golden, the district's former chief safety executive, said putting principals in charge of the cameras, rather than safety and security experts, was a formula for problems.

In middle and high schools, where problems are more prevalent, cameras needed to be monitored full time during school, he said.

But with more than 100 part-time school police officers slated to be cut from the payroll, the number of police available to monitor cameras will diminish.

"There will be nobody watching them," Lodise said.

Philadelphia isn't unique, Trump said. Most school districts can't afford to have personnel monitoring the cameras full time.

Harold Freeman, a recently retired district employee who participated in the safety audits, said most schools were "trying to make a good attempt" at meeting safety standards.

But even though principals were called in advance and told evaluators were coming, shortcomings were evident.

"A lot of the schools were overwhelmed," said Freeman, who worked in the hearings and expulsion office. "There aren't enough school police, and some were relying on per-diem police who weren't trained or didn't have as much invested as regular police."

He visited Barry Elementary, a relatively new school in West Philadelphia that is equipped with cameras.

"For the most part," Freeman said, "they weren't able to monitor them because they simply didn't have the staff to do it."

Barry received red ratings for failing to have all cameras operational and for having blind spots. It got a yellow in having cameras monitored by appropriate personnel.

Proponents say cameras deter crime because students are less likely to act out if they know a camera could identify them. Cameras, they say, also provide evidence for prosecution when crimes occur - as happened after the Audenried attack on Herring - and offer some measure of monitoring in hidden or other hard-to-watch areas.

But those in opposition say that cameras really won't stop fighting students and make schools safer, that it takes personnel, who establish relationships with students and regularly move about the school.

"The schools most effective in the long run are able to get their staffs interacting in spaces and at times not seen as part of the teachers' and principals' domain," said Ron Avi Astor, a professor in social work and education at the University of Southern California and a longtime researcher on school safety. "There's nothing more effective than showing [students] that adults in their environment care about them."


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

Staff writer William K. Marimow contributed to this article.

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