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Schools find benefits, limits to surveillance

The Pinellas schools chief calls for careful monitoring in the wake of an elementary school incident.

Published April 16, 2005

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Meadowlawn Middle School students gather after school Friday underneath one of many video monitors. The school has an extensive monitoring system.
At Meadowlawn Middle School in St. Petersburg, five screens are used, and each scene is also recorded and can be replayed. Students have been caught stealing and fighting on video, and the evidence comes in handy to show parents, as well as for prosecution purposes.

ST. PETERSBURG - From the minute 6-year-old E'Traveon Johnson arrived Tuesday at Fairmount Park Elementary, a piece of fancy technology tracked his movements.

At 8:35 a.m., a digital camera near the front of the school showed him running from his bus.

At 8:39 a.m., he swiped his bar-coded breakfast card in the cafeteria.

At 8:45 a.m., a camera caught him from behind, turning the corner into a portico that led to his classroom.

Twenty-two seconds later, the same camera recorded him running back into the corridor at full speed and out a door. He made it 293 yards to a busy street corner, where he was struck by a car. E'Traveon remained in critical condition late Friday at All Children's Hospital.

An air of helplessness took hold this week as district officials replayed those surveillance images in public. No camera had the power to reach out and pull the boy back, a lesson in the limitations of technology and the people who don't use it to its fullest.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Friday he wants that to change. Many principals said this week they are far too busy to spend much time viewing the surveillance images of the corridors and classrooms at their schools.

But Wilcox said, "I think everybody should be looking at it more. Why would we have it if we aren't going to look at it?"

The district has spent about $3-million in recent years installing surveillance systems in schools, the result of a task force recommendation that followed the killings at Columbine High School in 1999.

Neighboring Hillsborough County has taken the opposite tack, deciding in recent years that the benefits of surveilling students do not justify the $8-million price tag. Another big concern beyond cost: "Who would monitor it?" asked Linda E. Cobbe, a spokeswoman for the district.

Hillsborough officials also surmised what Pinellas educators know today - that surveillance can help reconstruct incidents but typically doesn't prevent them.

As budgets in Pinellas allow, surveillance systems have been installed in 59 of the district's 145 schools. All 16 high schools have such systems, as do 16 of the district's 23 middle schools. About A third of elementary schools have the systems.

In all, the district has 2,400 cameras, with more on the way.

In an upgrade planned over the next year, officials plan to ensure that all high schools have at least 64 cameras and that all middle schools have at least some surveillance system. After that, the focus will be on elementary schools, said Andre Poulard, an electrical engineer in the maintenance department who is charged with planning and installing the systems.

"Certainly, we would like everybody to have some level of coverage," he said.

The cost: about $1,300 per camera, or about $40,000 for an elementary school.

The district points its cameras at corridors, common areas, stairwells and other parts of the school grounds. There are no cameras in classrooms. And while some cameras may show the entrance to restrooms, they are never installed inside.

Wilcox, a big believer in technology, stepped up the surveillance program two months ago by enabling his own office computer to tap into the surveillance system of every school that has one. For example, had the superintendent been lucky enough Tuesday morning, he could have spotted E'Traveon fleeing the school.

He said he looks in on the system almost every day.

"I just think it's important that I know what's going on in schools," he said. "It also sends a message that if it's important for me - the superintendent - to look at it, then they (principals) better assign somebody" to look at it.

He called it "another piece of accountability."

Wilcox dismissed any privacy concerns.

"You can't have it both ways," he said. "You can't ask me to keep kids safe and secure and not let me use the tools to do that."

This summer, he plans to install 70 cameras at district administrative headquarters in Largo as a safety measure. He also said he hopes to create a "mission control" room at headquarters where an employee can continuously monitor the whole system, able to access any camera in the district.

Security needs and philosophies can vary from school to school.

At 3-year-old Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary, principal Bob Poth is still trying to decide how to spend $80,000 in construction money. He could spend $40,000 on a surveillance system or put in two computer labs. He's leaning toward the labs.

At Shore Acres Elementary, principal Tim Owens said he views the monitors only two or three times a week, but makes students aware that someone may be watching them on cameras.

"It's more of a psychological deterrent" against discipline problems, he said.

Several principals said the systems help with a variety of incidents, from determining who started a fight to catching the one student every year who feels compelled to pull the fire alarm. It's especially effective, they said, with parents of disruptive students who say their child can do no wrong.

Linda Tucker, the principal at Fitzgerald Middle School, remembers a mother who stormed in outraged that her child would be disciplined. "We looked at the monitor and the mother had totally different take on it," Tucker said.

[Last modified April 16, 2005, 01:21:18]

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