The most advanced technology in schools is no longer found only in classrooms, computer labs, and libraries. It’s in the networked cameras angled for maximum visibility, the weapons detectors at entrances, and soon, in an advanced surveillance system designed to identify threats—and it may be turned on students as well.
The Lockport City School District in New York is spending $2.75 million to overhaul its security with the Aegis system, software connected to a 300-camera surveillance network with face-recognition and tracking features. Lockport is buying the network from SN Technologies, an Ontario-based security company. While safety is essential to education, school shootings remain a statistical anomaly, meaning surveillance tech like this won’t be reserved for preventing tragedies; it could entirely reshape student life.
According to a Tribune News Service report, the Aegis system can use face recognition to identify visitors, and then matches them against criminal databases, alerting school officials when cameras detect a potential threat—someone whose photo is included in the sex offender registry, has a pending arrest warrant, etc. But, Lockport’s database matching would go even further than most surveillance systems: It could also flag visitors who aren’t in criminal databases, including expelled students, former “disgruntled” employees, parents without custody, and more.
Database matching can prevent certain people from entering the school, but the practice has been criticized by civil liberties experts. Databases can be erroneous (gang databases in LA famously include toddlers), skewed to include almost exclusively young men of color, and entry is ambiguous; sometimes it requires a corresponding criminal conviction, while sometimes it requires only officer suspicion. This system poses new problems. What defines a “disgruntled” employee?
“Students’ photos won’t be uploaded into the system unless there’s a reason,” the Tribune writes, leaving room for the possibility that photos of students could be added to the tracking system for disciplinary infractions.
“If we had a student who committed some type of offense against the code of conduct, we can follow that student throughout the day to see maybe who they interacted with, where they were prior to the incident, where they went after the incident, so forensically we could also use the software in that capacity as well,” Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey, of the nearby Depew, New York school district, told the Tribune News Service.
According to the Tribune, Depew is seeking state funding to also install the Aegis system.
The software could presumably pull camera footage of the flagged student, letting school officials trace their every move. There’s no indication this would be restricted to major incidents, meaning school officials could potentially use forensic surveillance tactics on typical school misbehavior. Video footage is retained for 60 days.
“Tracking every move of students and teachers is not the best way to make them feel safe at school and can expose them to new risks, especially for students of color who are already over-policed in the classroom,” John Curr, director of the Buffalo chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the Tribune News Service.
Data from a 2013 report issued by the New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force, a joint task force of legal experts reviewing disciplinary actions in New York schools, shows concerns about disproportionate impact are well founded. During the 2011-2012 school year, 882 arrests were made in NY schools. 70 percent of these were for misdemeanors, usually tied to school fights, and 63 percent of these charges would eventually be dismissed in court.
“Much of the misbehavior is typical of adolescents – for example, a fight between two students,” the report reads. “It is the adult response that differs. In one school, the principal, teacher or dean might take action by working with the students and parents. In another, students are issued a summons or arrested.”
When typical student misbehavior is reclassified as criminal behavior, students suffer the consequences—usually long after they’ve left adolescence, if charges stick. Omnipotent security systems, which could potentially turn students’ every action into “evidence,” is clearly a closely related issue.
“When it comes to safety and security, we want to have the best possible,” Rabey told the Tribune News Service. “From what I’ve seen, there’s no other [system] like it.”