A watchful eye

New surveillance cameras to be installed in Minneapolis high schools this summer

Instead of relying on hall monitors, Minneapolis schools are increasingly turning to surveillance cameras as a tool to promote school safety.

Because of deep budget cuts, there aren't enough teachers in classrooms, let alone supervisors throughout the hallways.

Some school officials, parents and students say security cameras, which are being installed in Minneapolis high schools this summer, help reduce break-ins, thefts and vandalism.

Southwest High School, 3414 W. 47th St., and Washburn High School, 201 W. 49th St., installed cameras for the first time over spring break. District officials say the cameras are part of a broader security plan that includes a limited number of adult hall monitors, locked doors, police liaison officers, uniformed off-duty police, alarm systems and in some cases, metal detectors.

Cameras help staff and students feel safer, school officials contend. For instance, they can capture images of people who break into lockers or pull alarms.

School Board Chair Joseph Erickson said that safety is an issue frequently raised by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) staff and students.

&#8220The cameras in the hallways issue is simply a way to get a better handle on basic calm and decorum in our schools,” he said.

Surveillance cameras have been present in some suburban school districts for years. Erickson predicted that cameras would become even more prevalent, in parks and other surrounding areas beyond the school zone.

For them, surveillance cameras are a nonissue. But others insist, however, that cameras don't tackle the real issues that lead to destructive behaviors.

Southwest High School English teacher David West said, &#8220We are always talking about personalization and building relationships. How do cameras help with that? We need to create an atmosphere of trust and pride at Southwest, in order to deal with our petty-criminal issues.”

Extra eyes at school

This month, the School Board will vote on a district security plan to finalize spending for the cameras. On average, interior cameras cost $1,000 while outside cameras range from $4,000-$5,000. About 60 cameras will probably be installed at each high school this summer, while older systems will be standardized, according to some school administrators.

The surveillance cameras, which record in color, are activated by motion, smoke and heat. They aren't monitored full-time, but provide a record of activity in the hallways and, at times, the parking lot. Signs on school windows and walls indicate to passersby that they are on the record.

MPS Director of Safety and Security Randy Johnson said, &#8220Cameras are viewed as a tool, or another several sets of eyes in a time when physical staff numbers have been reduced.”

At Roosevelt High School, 4029 28th Ave. S., which raised funds for cameras independent of the district three years ago, old equipment will be upgraded and standardized in the coming months.

Currently, Roosevelt, the district's largest school building, has 29 cameras. Of those, 28 are located at key entrances and exits, busy intersections and areas near alarms, within the building. One camera oversees the parking lot.

Principal Bruce Gilman said the cameras drive home a point. &#8220The biggest advantage is that they're preventive. Students and staff know they're there. They know inappropriate behavior is a matter of video record,” he said.

At Henry High School, cameras helped identify a student who allowed an intruder into the building and another student who passed counterfeit $20 bills at a school dance.

Even though the 16 cameras at Washburn have only been around for a few months, they've already made a difference, said Principal Steve Couture. &#8220They've had an immediate positive influence on graffiti. There's a lot less graffiti,” he said.

Cameras are here to stay

At Southwest, which also recently acquired 16 cameras, the extra surveillance has generally mellowed the hallways, said Principal Bill Smith. He cautioned that the district doesn't intend to &#8220spy” on children, he said, but he admitted, &#8220On the one hand, I'm not real thrilled with where society has gone,” he said. But, &#8220if it [cameras] saves one life or protects one building, then no price is too much.”

While privacy advocates have criticized other surveillance camera systems, such as Downtown's SafeZone, school-based cameras are less controversial. Southwest parent Anne Ogden said she hadn't heard any complaints about the cameras from her junior son Parker.

Ogden hypothesized that many children are OK with cameras because such devices have become so common in daily life. Teens frequently tote camera phones, as just one example. From a parent perspective though, &#8220I feel like the school does an excellent job of keeping kids safe, and I want them to have whatever would make them feel safe,” she said.

MPS Legal Counsel Allen Giles agreed.

&#8220We have an affirmative obligation to protect students attending our high schools. We have the responsibility to do what we can to provide a safe and secure environment for our students,” he said. &#8220Parents expect us to protect children, so they can concentrate on learning.”

Anna Pratt at [email protected] and 436-4391.