A heightened awareness about school security, an increase in vandalism and theft, and a violent crime on a Peninsula campus are leading local school district officials to join other school administrators in a recent nationwide trend: installing surveillance cameras on their campuses.
Such cameras had hefty price tags in the past – reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now, they are more affordable, enabling cost-conscious districts to install them on their campuses.
Last November, the Woodside Elementary School District board approved placing about eight cameras on the district's only campus, Woodside Elementary, according to district Superintendent Steve Frank. The cameras, which will cost a total of around $28,500, will be installed this month, he said.
"When we did the last bond (measure in 2014), we took a long look at what it would cost to implement cameras or (motion detector) sensors, but based on surveys and the culture of the community, we didn't want to create a closed-off fortress of a school," Frank said.
A recent trend of break-ins on the Woodside campus and across San Mateo County prompted officials to reconsider cameras, he said.
In June, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office arrested a man for attempting to steal iPads and computers from the school after he tripped an alarm. But it's not this single incident that spurred the district to consider cameras, Frank noted. Recently, there have been four smash-and-grabs to steal items from cars parked on campus, including one in broad daylight during a back-to-school night, he said.
"There's been a heightened awareness with an uptick of property damage," he said. "We really do need to protect student safety and cameras are not anything other than a deterrent."
Violence on some some school campuses has also been a concern for administrators, and the hope is that cameras can deter or solve such incidents.
Last year, someone shot and killed a Carlmont High School student on the Central Elementary School campus in Belmont, according to media reports. In October, the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District board voted to install exterior-facing security cameras at its seven campuses and district office following the incident.
A national trend
Peninsula school districts are joining the roughly 81% of K-12 public schools in the U.S. that use security cameras on their campuses. That figure is from a 2015-16 school year study released in 2018 by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Nationally, there has been a considerable amount of conversation about security cameras on school campuses in light of, most recently, the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, said Molly Henricks, school safety and risk prevention coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Education.
During an active shooter situation, schools can potentially allow police officers to view live feeds from cameras on campus, Henricks said, adding that real-time feeds can help police act quickly during an emergency. During the Parkland shooting, police efforts to apprehend the shooter were hampered because officers thought they were watching the suspect live on school cameras, but they were actually seeing 20-minute tape-delayed images, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Henricks said that some schools are also installing security cameras to investigate reported incidents, such as fights or bullying.
Office of Education staff members do not keep a running count of county school districts that have installed security cameras, but they have noticed an increase in camera installations, Henricks said.
Some school neighbors are concerned about the need for safety measures to ensure people's privacy as they go about their days on and around the nearby campus, Henricks said. She noted that neighbors don't want to be monitored just because they live across the street from a school. This is remedied by not positioning cameras toward residences, she said.
Frank said the cameras at Woodside will not face inward toward the campus; instead they will monitor the school's parking lot to see who is coming and going.
"We think relative privacy does not extend toward being in an automobile coming toward our campus," he said. The cameras will not be monitored in real time, and there will be signs posted on campus alerting people to them, he said.
The Las Lomitas Elementary School District added security cameras to "key locations" at La Entrada Middle School in Menlo Park after two break-ins on campus last summer, said Superintendent Beth Polito, who added that the perpetrators did not take anything.
In an email to staff and parents, Polito noted that signs will be posted in the vicinity of all cameras, and their use will "hopefully be primarily preventative."
"In the event of another break in, camera feed will be reviewed to provide law enforcement assistance in apprehending the culprit," she wrote. "While the primary purpose of the surveillance system will be to protect District facilities from break ins, recordings may be used in disciplinary proceedings and any matters captured by cameras may be referred to local law enforcement, as appropriate."
This school year, Portola Valley School District officials installed additional security cameras and upgraded older ones on both school campuses to protect property and improve security, at a cost of $43,758 for camera hardware, mounting accessories and five years of licenses and support, said Superintendent Roberta Zarea. The district first installed cameras on its campuses in 2013 in response to several incidents of after-hours vandalism and theft, she said.
Recently, there has been concern that valuable construction materials from Corte Madera and Ormondale school construction sites could be stolen, said Adam Lint, the district's director of bond projects. The district is especially vulnerable to theft because its campuses are tucked away in the isolated hills west of Interstate 280, Zarea said.
The district's policy states that "cameras shall not be placed in areas where students, staff, or community members have a reasonable expectation of privacy." Although the video recordings, which capture images and not sound, are not monitored actively, they may be used in disciplinary proceedings and can be passed on to local law enforcement, according to the policy.
Zarea noted that there has been an increase in vandalism and theft in the area in general over the years.
Bicycle thefts at local school campuses appear frequently in police logs, but there have also been more substantial incidents.
For example, in December 2018, police arrested a man for stealing about $14,000 worth of iPads and MacBooks from Encinal School in Atherton.
A Nov. 14 Menlo Park City School District staff report on possibly renewing the Measure X parcel tax that will expire in 2024, notes that new funds could go toward, in part, implementing "best-in-class" security plans and infrastructure on all campuses. This could include strategic fencing around schools and "state-of-the-art" video systems to ensure safety, according to the report.
The district "has strategically placed cameras in certain campuses over a period of the last few years based on need," said Superintendent Erik Burmeister in an email. "Cameras currently serve the purpose of campus security related to vandalism and loitering. The Board has begun the conversation of expanded video surveillance for increased security needs."
Shortfalls of camera technology
Many of the measures that would help schools improve security are "less flashy and fad-driven, and sometimes more discreet or even invisible," said Kenneth Trump, a school safety expert and president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based national consulting firm specializing in school security and emergency preparedness training.
For example, school officials can reconfigure a campus' main entrances to funnel visitors into the school's office, preventing people from walking into classrooms and spaces where students congregate, he said. Schools can also enhance hallway supervision and reduce bullying by positioning restroom sinks in common areas so adults can better supervise kids washing their hands after using the bathroom, he said.
Trump acknowledged that there is always a push to do something "new" in order to respond to the heightened fears of parents, educators and the broader society after a high-profile shootings such as the Parkland incident.
"They (school officials) are looking at physical, tangible security hardware and products that meet the emotional security needs, but could create a false sense of unrealistic security due to the overreliance upon quick-fixes versus time and people investments," he said in an email.
"It's easy to point to more cameras or additional police at a school (neither of which on their own are bad things), but it's harder to point to adults building relationships with kids, improved counseling and mental health support, regular planning and cross training with first responders, and diversified lockdown, evacuation, fire and other drills, (and) proactive communications strategy with parents and the community -- all of which truly make schools safer."
The Atherton Police Department employs a school resource officer who visits Atherton schools not only to keep the campuses safer but also to mentor students and break down barriers between students and police. School resource officer KC MacDonald spends his full workweek handling everything from mental health crises to fights between students. The majority of his work time two days per week – is spent at Menlo-Atherton High School, but he drops by eight school campuses in all.
Since 2006 there have been security cameras on Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high school campuses, according to The Almanac's archives. M-A has 65 cameras, said Principal Simone Rick-Kennel.
MacDonald said Atherton police can request access to a school's cameras if there is an incident on the campus, but the police don't have access to a live feed. Police recently used footage from a camera installed at M-A to identify a student who vandalized a police car parked on campus, he said.
"We could do our jobs without the cameras, but it (camera technology) helps mitigate a lot of issues," MacDonald said. Police can use camera footage to see if a suspect is a person they are already familiar with or send the image to other law enforcement agencies to help identify the culprit, he noted.
The Menlo Park Police Department hasn't reviewed footage of incidents at schools, said police spokesperson Nicole Acker. It did provide officials at TIDE Academy, a high school that opened this school year in Menlo Park, with recommendations on cameras, she added. TIDE has 20 security cameras on its campus, said Sequoia Union High School District spokesperson Ana Maria Pulido.
Trump hopes that school officials know how to use camera technology if they choose to install it.
He has completed a number of security assessments at schools across the country in recent years, where school officials have installed new technology, such as cameras and new telephone systems, and the school staff has not been trained on how to use them or on the equipment's capabilities. He's seen schools in which principals have no remote access to their schools' cameras, yet the function exists.
"We were in one high school where we interviewed the safety team and only one person knew that an all-call announcement could be made over the new telephone system put in classrooms the year before, yet nobody told the principal, her assistants, or the school's crisis team," he said.
He's also seen schools install camera systems through grants or one-time funding, but not maintain them since they don't have the budgets to fund them in the long term. This results in cameras that are not functioning, not being repaired and presenting a false sense of security, he said.