Letter from Superintendant Young

By Denebola
Published: December 2007

An Open Letter to the Community
Regarding Security Issues in
the Newton Public Schools

January 10, 2008

I am writing this letter to answer the many questions that arose around the placement of security cameras at Newton South High School and to propose some next steps to address whether or not we wish to use cameras or other technologies to assist with security in our schools, how we would use these items if we had them, and the implications of surveillance on students and adults within our buildings. As the situation at Newton South High School has captured public attention in recent weeks, I want to tell you exactly what happened there.

But first, I want to apologize to everyone at Newton South for the administration’s failure to define a clear policy about the use of cameras. Regrettably, an internal communication problem caused unnecessary and unwanted distraction in the school. I hope this letter will set us off on a better path toward understanding the challenges and options we have with regard to keeping our schools safe and secure.

Now for the history. As is their style, the principals of Newton North and Newton South consult on a wide range of issues. When Principal Salzer faced serious issues of theft and vandalism at South last spring, he contacted Principal Price at North for suggestions. Ms. Price told Mr. Salzer how before she became the principal North had lost over $30,000 worth of technology equipment, including laptops, LCD projectors, and other peripherals. Working with the Newton Police Department, North installed four cameras-two inside the technology storage closet and two in the corridor outside the closet. Shortly thereafter, the thief was recorded using a pair of shears to cut the chain locks on the closet door and was arrested. Much of the stolen property was recovered. No other use was made of the tape, and the system has since been turned off.

At South, Mr. Salzer was dealing with about twenty thefts of backpacks, cell phones, iPods, calculators and other personal belongings from the locker room area. In addition, one bathroom near the auditorium was being repeatedly vandalized, with someone destroying fixtures and writing graffiti. He wanted this to stop, as did the Newton Police, so he contacted Mr. Cronin, the system’s Chief of Operations, about using cameras in the school. Consequently, Mr. Cronin arranged to have three cameras installed outside the locker room area (the cameras did not look inside the locker room) and two outside the bathroom area (likewise, they did not look inside the bathroom). Mr. Salzer intended that once the cameras were operational, he would meet with the school community and explain their presence as a strategic deterrent. Mr. Cronin expected that the system would run as it had at North, designed to catch the offender and then be turned off. Here is where the confusion started. All parties now understand how these sorts of issues require much more discussion as well as a clear policy for the use of cameras and other security devices.

The five cameras were installed at South last August. The system was not designed for general long-term surveillance but rather for a snapshot moment with no audio recording. For example, if a backpack went missing at, say 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, the principal, at his computer, would have been able to look at the video for that time period. No one was being paid to monitor ongoing videotape. Because of a software problem between the camera and the principal’s desktop computer, however, the system was never made operational; and, in fact, Mr. Salzer was not aware that the system had been partially installed¦until, of course, DENEBOLA reporters got on the case.

The cameras at South are off and will remain off, unless and until the School Committee decides on a policy for their use. The same is true for the cameras at North. There are no security cameras in any other Newton schools.

As this security issue occurred “on my watch, I accept responsibility for the distress it caused. I have now met several times with the main parties to this story and we have agreed upon certain steps to take to ensure we do not repeat our internal communication mistakes. I can assure you that there will be no further missteps as far as security cameras are concerned. It has been our history not to advertise security practices, but we clearly need to address policy considerations around the use of technology for security. Policy issues are decided by the School Committee after consultation with School Department personnel.

Looking ahead, I see at least four questions we must answer:

(1) Should the high school principals have at their disposal a small number of portable security cameras that they could use for specific purposes in targeted areas? Presumably, the answer to this question would be made public, so that students and staff are aware of the existence of and possible use of the devices, if not their exact location.

(2) Should we install security cameras outside the high schools to help identify visitors/intruders? This approach could have made a big difference in the recent bomb threat/evacuation at Newton North.

(3) How might we utilize a combination of education and technology to make our high school campuses as safe and secure as possible?

(4) What are the privacy considerations for children and adults within the buildings, and are there pressing security situations which might outweigh privacy concerns?

In the coming weeks, I will recommend a process and timeline for the School Committee to take up these questions, as well as others that might emerge. School security is a complex issue, with dimensions ranging from the legal to the emotional. Any organization must find a way to balance the rights of the individual with the general interests of the group or community. I am committed to working with all of you to find a good way to have these important conversations and to reach the best conclusions.
Jeffrey M. Young
Superintendent of Schools

More information:

Denebola’s original article

Denebola’s official statement [pdf]

Info regarding Denebola in the media

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