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FCPS Video Surveillance Proposal Awakens Old Debate

Supporters say cameras inside schools would help administrators do their jobs; opponents say it takes away student privacy.

A proposal to install video surveillance cameras inside Fairfax County high schools is resurfacing decade-long discussions about student safety and privacy, pitting high school principals who believe the system could curb theft and discipline issues against local activists and community members who say the program is ineffective and violates student rights.

The Fairfax County High School Principals Association and the schools’ Department of Facilities and Transportation Services brought the proposal before the school board at a Monday work session, saying the program could help administrators curb disciplinary issues like food fights, physical altercations or drug dealing.

“We really need to have cameras in our schools for security reasons,” Lee High School principal Abe Jeffers said.

The association has discussed the use of video cameras for at least 10 years, said Madison High School Principal Mark Merrell, who leads the group. The school system already uses 372 cameras outside of 30 school buildings, including 20 high school and secondary schools, one middle school, and seven elementary schools.

The association’s proposal offers three levels of surveillance: installing cameras in only the school cafeterias, installing them in cafeterias and other high-traffic common areas, or placing them throughout the interior of the school.  

Footage from video surveillance cameras can be monitored on-site at a school, but also at the school system’s security office. Administrators could go back and look through footage of a particular incident to identify students who were involved and to what extent, and police departments would also have a right to subpoena video footage if a student is suspected of criminal activity.

FCPS media coordinator Paul Regnier said such footage could be used in disciplinary hearings, though parents can view the evidence ahead of time.

 “The students are subjected to some search and seizure type activities that you or I would not necessarily be subjected to just out in the community,” said attorney Barrett L Kime, whose Virginia-based law office works with school systems.

School officials estimate installing the cameras in cafeterias would cost about $8,000 dollars per school; a school-wide interior deployment would cost about $120,000 dollars. Twenty-three out of 27 high school principals in the association agreed to pay for the cameras using their already allotted discretionary funds, though all 27 support the program.

But “ongoing replacement, monitoring, storage … that cost would fall on the school board,” school board member Stu Gibson (Hunter Mill) said.

A Second Try

Two years ago, the county piloted a video surveillance program in school lunch lines in an effort to deter student theft, Gibson said, but it was discontinued because the board did not see the number of incidents decrease.

But the principals’ association points to a study from the schools' Office of Safety and Security, which found the external video surveillance systems in place at nine county high schools accounted for more than 68 percent of the total reduction of external vandalism at all high schools. Data comparing the number of vandalism incidents for those schools was not readily available.

The most recent proposal comes at the heels of two large-scale food fights that drew media attention. In late May, four  students . Two weeks earlier, more than 100 students at   after a massive food fight occurred during lunch. In a survey issued by the association, 18 principals reported their schools have experienced at least 16 food fights collectively over the last two years.

“The cafeteria fights highlight the challenges administrators face today with these seemingly spontaneous events,” said Fred Ellis, the director of the office of safety and security for the school system.

The proposal could allow schools to decrease the amount of personnel needed to monitor student lunch. Teachers, administrators and security staff spend 50 hours a day monitoring lunch periods in 27 high schools, the association said. Merrell said the cameras would also help keep students and the buildings safe and secure particularly at times when buildings are open without sufficient staff.  

“Our schools are often used seven days a week, and are kept open as late as 11 p.m. on many nights,” Merrell said. “We typically have security staff and [administrative] staff on duty until 4 or 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, thus leaving a large window when we don't have staff on duty. “

But Fairfax Zero Tolerance reform, which drove much of thelate last spring, says the language used in the principals’ proposal doesn’t indicate its main focus is preventing the bad behavior. The video surveillance program would perpetuate a “gotcha” mentality in the student disciplinary process -- something FZTR co-founder Caroline Hemenway said the group had worked hard to erase as they advocated for student rights last spring.

“This is not about prevention. If it were about prevention and deterrence of activities that could be dangerous then that would be one thing. But principals and administrators are still going to be on duty in the cafeteria. There’s no data that suggests these [interior] cameras will be a deterrent at all,” FZTR Communications Director Michele Menapace said.

Expectations Of Privacy

Gibson said he doesn’t have a problem with cameras outside school buildings  -- they help with theft and preventing students from going off campus during the school day when they should be in school, he said. But inside, he’s strongly against them.  

“The zones of privacy people have these days are shrinking and I don’t think school system should be a part of shrinking what little privacy people have,” Gibson said.

“I respect that,” School Board member Brad Center (Lee) said. But today, “there are cameras out at red lights and stop signs, and if you walk by an ATM, you’re going to be on camera.”

Likewise, there isn’t necessarily an expectation of privacy in similar areas at schools, he said, like the areas outside gymnasiums or auditoriums.

A deciding factor for Center will be how county school staff plans to measure the program’s success.

“Here’s the problem: How do you know it was successful?’ Is success a reduction in the number of incidents? Maybe not, maybe it’s an increase in the reported incidents you didn’t know were happening … Knowing how we’re going to measure this will be important for me before I decide on the vote," he said.

Merrell said each principal is reaching out to their communities to discuss the issue before it appears before the board again at an Oct. 17 work session.

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