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Walpole

Walpole students petition against school surveillance cameras

WALPOLE — A group of students is protesting the administration’s proposal for more security cameras at Walpole High School, saying they’re unnecessary, too expensive, and an invasion of privacy.

Calling themselves Students Opposing Surveillance, or SOS, the teens are circulating petitions — they had collected about 500 signatures as of early this week — and have met with the School Committee and school officials to argue their case.

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The cameras proposed for the high school hallways are “an unwarranted invasion of our privacy in a place that is supposed to be a supportive environment of learning; it creates a feeling of distrust between the students and the administrators,” said senior Sean Herlihy, who helped organize the protest campaign.

The students’ opposition is bucking the trend, both locally and nationally, in favor of putting more cameras in schools. More than 60 percent of public schools reported using security cameras in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Less than 20 percent used cameras in 2000, the center reported.

“Cameras are becoming more and more a part of campus supervision and management, whether we like it or not,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in California. “They can be a very effective tool, especially for issues of vandalism and violence.

“There is that fine line between supervision and snoopervision,” he added. “Schools need to do their homework [and] let students know how and why they’re doing it, how the information is used, and how it’s in the interest of the students’ safety and their property.”

In Walpole, Herlihy and other SOS leaders argue that the estimated $37,000 cost for 18 digital cameras would be better spent elsewhere in the schools or town. And, while they recognize that adults want to protect them — especially after the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn. — they say more cameras aren’t the answer.

‘There is that fine line between supervision and snoopervision. Schools need to do their homework [and] let students know how and why they’re doing it.’

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“These cameras will not stop bullets from flying [or] put Kevlar in front of the students,” said Jon Kelland, a junior at Walpole High.

Massachusetts doesn’t keep track of how many schools have security cameras, nor does it have a policy for their use, according to JC Considine of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. But an informal survey of schools south of Boston found most have cameras — some in large numbers.

Weymouth High School, for example, has 225 cameras inside and outside the rambling building, according to Assistant Superintendent Matthew Ferron. As in the vast majority of other districts, all 12 schools in Weymouth also have cameras at their locked front doors, he said.

There are hundreds of cameras in Plymouth’s 14 schools, as well, with close to 90 at the newest building, Plymouth North High School, said Superintendent Gary Maestas. More are planned, he said.

“We don’t have a casino-like atmosphere where we’re looking for wrongdoing,” Maestas said. “It’s not like Big Brother. But I’ll tell you if there is an incident and a kid gets hurt and [he] wants to validate that [he wasn’t at fault], there’s nothing like having a video that can validate their story.”

Brockton recently upgraded the cameras at its 23 schools, using a $490,000 federal grant that also paid for improved lighting, fencing, and locks, according to spokeswoman Jocelyn Meek. She wouldn’t say how many cameras are in the schools, however. “Kids think they’re everywhere, and we want them to think that,” she said.

Norwell Superintendent Matthew A. Keegan also declined to discuss where and how many cameras are in the town’s four schools. “You don’t want to tell how your security works, for security reasons,” he said, adding he would like more cameras.

Most school officials said the main reason for cameras in their schools is to combat vandalism and theft, and to resolve what Hingham Superintendent Dorothy Galo called “he said/she said issues.” Hingham has the capability to put cameras on its school buses primarily for that reason, she said.

But the specter of school shootings also is a factor.

Braintree schools’ business manager, Peter Kress, said his district installed cameras after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Kress said school officials are proposing to spend $190,000 next fiscal year for more cameras, interior classroom locks, and other security measures.

“This was [proposed] before Newtown, but Newtown certainly has got everyone else talking about it,” he said. “I have a feeling people will be really comfortable with a few additional cameras, especially in the foyers.”

Walpole Superintendent Lincoln Lynch said the Newtown tragedy also played a part in his request for additional school cameras, as part of a larger security plan. The administration made a similar request, unsuccessfully, for several years but “this year it’s getting some traction,” he said.

Lynch said the proposal, which the Walpole School Committee has endorsed, calls for using $37,000 from the capital budget to buy 18 more cameras for the high school, which could be linked to the Police Department. He noted that the school already has a few cameras in main locations, and since the money would not come from the operating budget, “I won’t have to reduce a teacher or instructional materials to pay for it.”

Lynch said the proposal – which also includes additional cameras at the middle and elementary schools, for a total expense of $109,000 – still has to go through several steps before reaching Town Meeting in May.

“I welcome input from the students,” he said. “We’re pleased that they have taken an interest in their educational community. The kids [are] very articulate and respectful.”

Ross Bubly, a senior who helped start SOS, said students plan to go to as many meetings as necessary. “This town government stuff is new to us, but we want to have our voices heard,” he said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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