ITHACA, NY – At a Board of Education meeting earlier this month, the Ithaca City School District laid out plans to implement new security equipment with the help of a $2.5 million state grant.

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According to an investment plan released by the school, the funds come as the result of the Smart Schools Bond Act (SSBA), a $2 billion statewide program aimed at improving educational technology and infrastructure to improve learning and opportunity for students. It was passed via referendum in 2014.

ICSD Chief Operations Officer Amanda Verba laid out the reasoning behind the plan. She explained that the SSBA has strict limitations that allow for four different uses:

  1. acquiring learning technology equipment or facilities
  2. installing high-speed broadband for schools and communities
  3. construction or enhancement of pre-kindergarten facilities
  4. install high tech security equipment on school grounds

Verba explained that the first two options were things that the district had already implemented prior to receiving the funds, while the pre-kindergarten option was a lower priority because the district already an infrastructure in place for these programs.

Thus, the district settled on the security option, which Verba said was “an issue, a concern, a real priority for us in the district that we had been wanting to take a look at.”

The specifics

The investment plan outlines the two major security elements the district plans to acquire: access control systems and electronic security systems.

Access control systems would replace standard lock-and-key doors with a system based on access cards or fobs. The district would be able to tailor access to different parts of school buildings for each individual in the system. Doors could also be programmed to lock or unlock on a schedule. First responders would have access to a card or fob as well.

“I look at it from more of a building maintenance perspective, where putting the electrified hardware on this is going to let you hand out less keys, re-key less doors and put the doors on a schedule,” said Ryan Garrison an architect who consulted on the plan.

Electronic security systems refers to security cameras. The program would add cameras to buildings that have none or replace older systems. The cameras would record on a 30-day cycle to a central storage so footage could be reviewed. Access to live feeds could be granted to police or fire departments if needed.

The camera systems will cost approximately $800 thousand and the access control systems will cost roughly $1.7 million, using up the full bond allocation.

Verba noted that they were conscious of the potential impact these features could have on the schools’ community culture.

“We did not want to make the public feel that they were unwelcome and we also didn’t want such a strict behavior change that we wouldn’t have the adoptive environment that we need to make this successful,” she said.

To that end, the access control plan focuses mainly on controlling main access routes into and out of buildings. Verba says that they consulted with individual principals at each school and public safety personnel at TST BOCES to formulate the most appropriate plan. She also noted that the plan is not set in stone and is still modifiable.

Concerns

ICSD Board of Education member Sean Bradwell expressed concerns about the use of cameras in the schools.

“I continue to not be as sold on the role of cameras, for a number of reasons. Part of it is the over-use of cameras in every possible public space that we can imagine, and second, I keep hearing this as a possible security measure but I’m not sure that cameras provide the security that people often think that they do,” he said.

Garrison explained that since most districts cannot afford to pay for someone to watch the cameras constantly, the cameras are primarily an investigation tool. He said that he didn’t have specific numbers as to the number of cameras, but said that the coverage would be “pretty comprehensive.”

Bradwell said that it was important to have specifics during the public comment period. “If you’re talking about two cameras in a school, that’s one thing. If you’re talking about 40 cameras in a school, I may have a different response to the plan.”

Board member Eldred Harris asked about the availability of schematics or maps that would indicate the layout of the cameras or access control points.

Verba said that she was advised by public safety that releasing such information publicly could be detrimental, as anyone who did wish to cause trouble would then effectively have a “blueprint” as to how to circumvent the system.

Further discussion clarified that the cameras were primarily an investigative tool that would help administrators save time, and by extension, money. Max Fink, an ICSD student, pointed out that from the student perspective, those benefits aren’t really clear.

“I don’t think the students are paying as much attention to, ‘Oh I can find my keys,’ or ‘Oh, we can stop vandalism and increase community,’” Fink said. “I think the first thing on the student’s minds is, ‘They’re watching.’” However, he did note that it is a price that will likely have to be paid, given the practical benefits.

Another student, Pierre Saint from Lehman Alternative Community School, said that she was less upset than she expected about “being watched,” but found that the lack of public knowledge about these plans to be disturbing.

Verba again emphasized the project is still fully modifiable. She explained that the initial plan aimed to establish what the pricing would be for the camera systems because some principals had expressed an interest in having them. Including them in the plan gives the district the option, but does not lock them in to purchasing or using cameras.

The public comment period and draft review process for this plan will last for 30 days from March 22. All feedback on the Investment Plan may be sent to Amanda Verba, Chief Operations Officer, (607) 274­2121 or amanda.verba@icsd.k12.ny.us.

(Featured image: CWCS Managed Hosting on Flickr)

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.