What Do Cameras Cure? System Gets Own Scrutiny
Years and millions later, some officials question whether public school security cameras are effective.
By: Ali Winston
Now in the fourth year of citywide operation, the New York City public school video surveillance program continues full steam ahead even as many parents, advocates, elected officials and students raise serious questions about the system's effectiveness and transparency.
By the end of 2008, more than 300 middle and high schools in 130 buildings will be equipped with some 6,000 cameras belonging to the Department of Education's $120 million Internet Protocol Digital Video Surveillance (IPDVS) system,(see here also) intended to help reduce violence in public schools. Although school officials consider IPDVS a success, problems have cropped up with both its technical workings and people's ability to gain access to the footage. Meanwhile, oversight from City Council, which passed a law amending the City Charter to authorize camera installation in Nov. 2004, has been uneven at best. A mandated review by DOE and the NYPD – which are jointly responsible for school safety – was completed in May, but City Councilman Peter F. Vallone, Jr., who chairs Council's Public Safety Committee, has not shared it with other committee members. City Councilman David Yassky, the only member of the Public Safety Committee to request the report, needed the help of Speaker Christine Quinn's staff earlier this month to obtain a copy.
Delivered to Quinn, Vallone and Councilman Robert Jackson, who chairs the Education Committee, the report outlines the state of camera installation in schools slated for IPDVS systems. A heavily redacted version of the report was obtained by City Limits via the Freedom of Information Law, with even the list of schools slated for camera installation withheld for fear of “endanger[ing] the life or safety of the children, employees, and others at the school sites,” according to Elizabeth Fine, general counsel to the City Council. However, the list is available on pages C-54 to C-58 of the DOE's 2005-2009 Five-Year Capital Plan. It's unclear what the DOE-NYPD review contains, as city officials say there has been no thorough evaluation or analysis of the camera system's effectiveness or impact on school security.
School safety has been a flashpoint of late in New York City, as evidenced by an all-day City Council hearing on the issue this fall. Suspensions and misconduct arrests of students are rising, and there is a steady volume of complaints against school safety agents. Though the Mayor's Management Report issued in September says school violence declined in fiscal year 2007, an audit by the Comptroller the same month accused DOE of underreporting school violence. DOE maintains the audit is out of date.
Local lawmakers, advocates, and civil libertarians see an explicit need for comprehensive oversight policies for the deployment and use of cameras in a school setting. Education Chair Jackson, who is skeptical about camera usage and supports their use only in select schools with a demonstrated need, is aware of difficulties faced by parents trying to obtain video and advocates greater supervision. “There needs to be greater transparency and clear rules governing the handling, storage, and access to footage,” Jackson said. “Also, there needs to be accountability for holding the data recorded by IPDVS.”
IPDVS was designed by DOE and the School Construction Authority in 2003 as a “major initiative to provide schools with state-of-the-art video surveillance systems,” according to the redacted oversight report, and first implemented in July 2004 – months before the project was actually given the green light by Council. The system is funded by $119.9 million from the DOE's five-year capital plan for fiscal years 2005-2009, with an additional $8 million provided by City Council and the borough presidents. Schools with existing camera systems were to be retrofitted, and standard specifications for all new schools included plans for video monitoring.
The system is a “hybrid,” in which video recorded by analog cameras is converted to digital format. Feeds are watched live at the schools by school safety agents, who are uniformed NYPD employees. It's also sent over a network to the DOE central office next to City Hall; the footage is stored there as well as in on-site servers in schools, according to Robert Weiner, the DOE director of planning, research and development. Weiner says servers were designed to have the storage capacity to retain video for 60 days, but acknowledged that in practice their capacity is too “finite” to guarantee that. The footage is intended for use as an investigative tool and deterrent to bad behavior, but is predominantly used as evidence in student misconduct hearings.
Video surveillance is becoming more common across the country – an estimated 30 million cameras are installed nationwide – and public schools are prime sites for installation. In Demarest, N.J., video feeds from cameras in public schools are streamed live to the local police department. In Nashville, facial recognition software was installed on digital cameras in the city's public school system. Here, DOE says facial recognition software is not being used, but the capacity for future installation is there.
“The rules governing camera use and access need to be more clearly developed and delineated,” said Councilman John Liu, a member of the Education Committee. An outspoken critic of the school safety regime, Liu supports the use of cameras in schools for security purposes, with adequate regulations and safeguards for privacy. The councilman compared video surveillance to DNA testing, another crime-fighting technology that has prompted calls for tighter regulation. “Intuitively, the technology seems to be foolproof,” Liu said. “The issue is how the evidence is handled.”
Footage recorded by school cameras is supposed to be equally available to education officials and students if it will be introduced as evidence in misconduct cases. According to the General Education Suspension Notice sent home with suspended children, students and their parents have “the right to view and obtain in person at the school a copy of any video recording of the incident if the school shows you or your child a video recording of the incident prior to the suspension and/or the school intends to introduce the video recording at the hearing.”
However, these regulations are not always followed to the letter. Nelson Mar, senior staff attorney at the Bronx office of Legal Services of New York, often handles misconduct and suspension cases where IPDVS footage is used as evidence. In a number of instances, Mar has been unable to obtain footage from the school because it has been erased, was never stored, or incorrect footage was provided by DOE.
In one case from Oct. 2006, Sky Lopez, a 15-year-old girl at M.S. 224 in the Bronx, alleged that a school safety agent verbally and physically assaulted her in a hallway monitored by video cameras. The agent claims that Sky actually attacked her, and has filed a suit against the girl in Family Court. When Sonia Lopez, her mother, learned the hallway was under surveillance, she asked Mar to procure the footage. A few weeks after the incident, Mar was provided with 45 minutes of video recorded immediately after the time of the incident. When he submitted a second request for the correct footage, the principal of M.S. 224 informed him that, to the best of her knowledge, the video had been erased. The girl's family plans to sue the city for false arrest.
“If I hadn't gone back to the school and argued for the video every day, I wouldn't have the tape in my hand,” said Sonia Lopez. While she was thankful that the video Mar obtained helped clear her daughter because it contradicted sworn statements by the safety agent, she believes schools are using the cameras punitively. “They're supposed to [protect students], but they don't use them for good because when things happen in school, they erase their own evidence, and I don't think it's fair.”
There have been other instances of students accusing DOE of editing footage, such as the widely-publicized arrest and suspension of then-junior Biko Edwards at Samuel Tilden last summer. Biko was pepper-sprayed, roughed up, and arrested by safety agents while rushing to class. Suspended and slapped with five criminal charges, Biko and his mother say the video footage of his incident was heavily edited. Even the timestamp was changed. (See Students On Camera: Schools Under Watch, City Limits Weekly #582, April 9, 2007.)
In another suspension case, this one at the Bronx High School of Business, Mar was denied crucial footage for technical reasons. A Dec. 6 e-mail from DOE Information Technology staffer Peter Lombardo explains that the requested video is unavailable “due to excessive amounts of storage being consumed by cameras falsely recording sensor noise triggering motion at night and on weekends.”
Weiner of DOE maintains that IPDVS cameras are “functioning as designed,” and are serviced regularly by DOE's Information Technology staff. He did acknowledge some difficulty with server storage capacity. “We are aware that we are not successful in all cases of meeting this target, and our IT division is working towards that goal,” he said. Regarding edited video, Office of School and Youth Development chief executive officer Elayna Konstan said that schools don't have the ability to erase or edit footage, nor is it DOE's policy to edit or erase footage. Konstan's office is in charge of the IPDVS program.
Regardless, attorney Mar thinks DOE is potentially exposing itself to litigation by denying video or providing incorrect footage for suspension hearings. “This is potentially exculpatory evidence, so they can't dispose of it,” he said. “That's obstruction of justice.”
The errors that caused camera malfunctions at Bronx High School of Business may just be the tip of the iceberg regarding technical problems with IPDVS. A veteran of the security camera industry, who wished to remain anonymous to maintain his contracts on DOE projects, maintains that the “hybrid” analog-to-digital system is not as state-of-the-art as “true” network-based systems, which dominate the industry.
The industry veteran explained it this way: “Instead of putting in [digital] cameras running CAT-6 cables running directly to a computer, they put in a special jack that took an analog camera, converted it to a [digital] camera, and interfaced it” with the network that transmits footage to storage servers. The hybrid design, he said, required the installation of “unnecessary equipment” for the analog-to-digital conversion by another contractor known as a systems integrator.
The industry veteran says IPDVS is not working as planned. Some schools have been wired wrong by School Construction Authority-approved electrical contractors, and will need to be rewired. A second industry insider, who also wished to remain anonymous because his company works with IPDVS, called the Authority's bidding process a “double-edged sword” because it's required by law to employ the “lowest responsible bidder” from a list of approved contractors.
“DOE can't find competent contractors,” he said. “Some of the workmanship has been horrible.” DOE and SCA contracting arrangements continue to be a subject of scrutiny.
At Jamaica High School, a 1,700-student institution designated an “Impact School” almost a year ago because of high violence rates, IPDVS installation has wreaked havoc on other electrical systems in the school since it began this October. According to James Eterno, the United Federation of Teachers representative for the high school's faculty, the bell signaling period changes works only in parts of the building. Furthermore, Eterno says the public announcement system is all but inoperable, and believes the malfunction is linked to camera installation: “Our principal said the PA system is semi-operational, but I haven't heard anything beyond, 'testing, 1,2.'” (Eterno and other staff also disagree with the Impact designation: “There's a lot of good going on here,” he says.)
Furthermore, the crucial jack that makes this hybrid system work by converting analog footage to digital, manufactured by Glenview, Il.-based Anixter, is so faulty that the part has been discontinued. However, the School Construction Authority's standard specifications for IPDVS cameras as of Feb. 2007 include the Anixter jack, which is used on every one of the approximately 6,000 cameras installed throughout New York City public schools.
“At some point, they're going to have to redesign the system,” said the industry veteran. “If they had gone with a true network system that would have been open architecture, they could have used anybody's equipment,” he added. The second insider who has worked extensively on IPDVS confirmed that the Anixter jack has been discontinued. However, third party replacements are still available.
DOE denies that IPDVS is experiencing technical issues, however. “There have been absolutely no problems with the technical aspects of this system,” said Weiner, though he's aware of the discontinued Anixter jack. As for a system redesign, Elayna Konstan says DOE is not currently weighing such as option.
“At this time, we are not considering such a step, but technology evolves, it changes and grows and we have to adjust to that,” she said. DOE is currently testing out a true IP-based camera system, which was installed during the present school year and is in its initial phases, at an undisclosed pilot school.
The industry veteran believes the hybrid system was not the Authority's first choice. “They had been given specs and demonstrations of real network-driven systems. They wanted to go that way, but were forced to go with a hybrid” because of cost concerns, he said.
The second insider thinks DOE chose a hybrid system because vandalism-proof digital cameras were prohibitively expensive when IPDVS was designed in 2003. Technological advances have led to cheaper digital video cameras, which the second insider says DOE will install as older analog cameras fail “through attrition.” He added that camera upkeep would be a consistent annual expense, something that DOE's capital plan does not include in its budget for IPDVS.
Elayna Konstan maintains that the IPDVS camera system was put out to a competitive bidding process, and the current contracts are sound.
Councilman Vallone, the sponsor of Local Law 52, which enshrined the camera program as an amendment to the city charter, is not aware of technical problems with the system. “In my discussions with DOE, I have not come across anyone who has a bad thing to say about cameras,” Vallone said. A former prosecutor, Vallone vowed to look into the issue this year, expressing particular concern about potential exculpatory evidence being denied to students. He said he was not aware of a potential redesign, and declined to comment on that.
The possibility of an IPDVS overhaul alarmed Councilman Jackson, who took issue with the School Construction Authority's decision to proceed with a system that wasn't cutting-edge. “If they know it was faulty and went forward with it, a full investigation as to how that contract was made should be conducted by a special investigator,” Jackson said.
Roads Not Taken
At John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx – one of the city's largest campuses, with 4,000 students divided into several schools – Assistant Principal Scott Arbuse says security cameras have been an asset.
“They do work. They are an excellent tool,” said Arbuse, giving graffiti as an example. If graffiti is found in a particular area of the school, safety agents can monitor video of that area more closely. “We've caught several kids doing graffiti that way,” he said.
To Ken Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services the pros and cons of cameras should be weighed as a potential tool – “a supplement to, but not a substitute for, a more comprehensive school safety program.”
“Cameras do serve as a deterrent to the many who are deterrable, but they also provide evidence for those who are not,” Trump said.
But video surveillance is a relatively new technology, and doubts exist about the future ramifications of retaining footage of student activity without proper supervision. “There are also concerns about data retention: will this follow people for the rest of their lives?” asked Melissa Ngo, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research center that focuses on civil liberties and electronic monitoring. “As technology changes and people use it more and more, it creates the ability for every mistake you make to follow you throughout your life.”
Especially when doubt exists as to cameras' real deterrent effect, some wonder whether it's worth taking those risks. In England, one of the world's most heavily-videoed societies, a study by the Home Office showed that surveillance cameras do not significantly reduce violent crime.
Meanwhile, other methods of reducing school violence and increasing safety for students and teachers have proven effective in other school districts – and at a fraction of the cost of video surveillance.
Proactive mediation efforts known as “positive behavioral support” underway in select city schools and have reduced incidents of school crime and misconduct, said NYCLU field organizer Chloe Dugger, citing larger programs in Los Angeles and Chicago public schools as models.
Mentoring programs, adult and student mediators, and other behavioral support programs not only examine root causes of school violence and misconduct, but they are also less costly and confrontational, Dugger said. This August, U.S. Senators Barack Obama and Richard Durbin, and U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, all Illinois Democrats, introduced into Congress the Positive Behavioral for Effective Schools Act, which would secure resources to expand programs across the nation that led to 38 percent decreases in suspension rates in some suburban Chicago school districts.
Ngo of EPIC condemned the IPDVS program as a waste of taxpayer money and limited school funding. “New York Ciy is spending $120 million on unproven camera systems, on something that will not secure the schools,” she said. “It's not as if school budgets are unlimited.”