Hopkinton installs cameras in school, citing safety for all

Last modified: 3/18/2014 12:04:13 AM
Usually buzzing with students’ animated conversations and shuffling feet, the empty halls of Hopkinton Middle/High School fell silent yesterday afternoon. The real activity was taking place in the ceiling above, where workers from Pelmac Industries began weaving the electrical groundwork for a new system of security cameras.

Hopkinton is one of the latest school districts to install the technology, which is often encouraged by state organizations as a way to improve student and teacher safety. In recent years, video cameras have become increasingly common in public schools.

“I think every school we have toured in the last three to four years has entrance cameras or is working to get them,” said Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

For Hopkinton, the cameras are seen as a way to protect students from possible intruders and to cut back on bullying or vandalism.

“We hope that it is a deterrent to bad behavior and provides teachable moments,” said Superintendent Steve Chamberlain. “It’s more for deterrent than gotcha.”

At a price of $21,590, the cost of Hopkinton’s cameras is split between the district and a grant from the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The agency developed the Emergency Management Performance Grant for Schools Program under the direction of Gov. Maggie Hassan following the shooting at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn., said the division’s assistant director, Steven Temperino. In addition to offering money, the division has released a set of core standards to increase school safety that include surveillance, access control and emergency alerts.

“Many schools in New Hampshire are very old and were never built with security in mind,” Temperino said. “We put these suggestions in the budgetary process . . . to develop safer schools.”

‘See exactly what happened’

Chamberlain said the cameras being installed at the middle/high school are in line with the division’s guidelines.

The 16 cameras will be positioned throughout the building. Two will be stationed outside, one at the front entrance and one facing the parking lot, said school Principal Chris Kelley. The remaining 14 will be placed inside the building at locations identified by staff as the most important, including hallways, back stairwells, common areas, and spots in the school that are not easily monitored by staff.

The cameras will produce live feeds accessible to school administrators and emergency responders through a password login. The video will also be recorded and stored up to 30 days, according to a video and audio surveillance policy posted on the school district’s website.

Kelley said he doesn’t anticipate anyone watching the monitors 24/7, but rather having the footage available for review in case something like bullying or vandalism does occur

“It gives us the opportunity to review evidence that is more than just word of mouth,” Kelley said. “We can go back and see exactly what happened.”

For example, he said, in the past people have put inappropriate notes in students’ lockers. If the victim knew the note was left within a specific time frame, administrators could review the video feed. “No matter how often we’re in the hall we can’t always be there,” Kelley said. “It’s difficult to figure out who is responsible.”

Both Chamberlain and Kelley said the move wasn’t prompted by a specific increase in bad behavior, but was driven in large part by school safety concerns. “I think it’s something all public schools are dealing with,” Chamberlain said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to have students feel safe, comfortable and productive.”

The school already had four cameras located in the school parking lot that were installed several years ago after a string of vandalism incidents. The new cameras will be more high-tech, Kelley said, and those positioned at the entrance doors will be able to scan back and forth.

“If my daughter is there until 9 o’clock at night for robotics, I like the idea of a camera in the parking lot,” said Liz Durant, vice chairwoman of the Hopkinton School Board. “It’s just one more step in the right direction for an overall comprehensive look at our security.”

Once the installation is complete within the next two weeks, the administration will get training on how to access the feeds before the cameras are active, Kelley said. Signs will also be posted at building entrances alerting students and visitors of the video surveillance.

A new facility committee will soon begin looking at increasing security across all Hopkinton schools and make its recommendations in a facility plan. “I think we’re catching up,” Kelley said.

Comparing the policies

In neighboring districts, some schools already have similar policies in place.

Bow High School, in the town next door, has had 17 cameras installed within the past six years. Three face outside and the rest are positioned inside the building in lobby areas, hallways and around the cafeteria.

“It started reactive and is now much more proactive,” said school Principal John House-Myers. “It has evolved from catching kids doing something stupid to working as a deterrent to prevent them.”

The cameras have been used in different kinds of investigations, including one incident when some iPods were stolen from gym lockers. Administrators were able to use cameras in the hallway and isolate a specific time frame to get an idea who was coming and going, House-Myers said. That then led to a conversation, which ultimately ended with administrators figuring out the students behind the theft.

“We have had some real good success getting things back and cameras have been really instrumental,” House-Myers said. “It’s really part of a much larger strategy . . . to make a safer and more secure place for students and teachers.”

Between 2011 and 2012, Merrimack Valley School District installed roughly 60 cameras in the high and middle schools that have a combined population of about 1,500 kids, district Superintendent Mike Martin said.

“The whole idea about the cameras is it ends the conversation about what happened and changes the conversation to what is the appropriate consequence,” he said.

Concord School District has one camera at the high school that monitors a handicapped entrance on Westbourne Road, but none on the interior of the building. The school utilizes other security measures, said district facilities director Matt Cashman, that include 85 blue-light sirens used during lock-downs, a panic button and staff positioned at entry points. Cameras monitor the entrances of all the districts’ elementary schools and Rundlett Middle School.

So far, House-Myers said, he hasn’t heard any privacy concerns from parents. “I think parents appreciate it. We’re not using it in ways we shouldn’t,” he said.

“Cameras are a part of our lives today,” Temperino said. “There are very few places we go and there aren’t some type of cameras being used to protect us.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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