The deal came together in April with little debate, as Springfield’s mayor cast the tie-breaking vote to provide police increased access to school surveillance cameras.
Now, the Springfield School Committee’s decision — which gave police real-time access to internal and external school video starting last month — is facing pushback from privacy advocates and angry parents, whose faith in law enforcement has been eroded by a history of brutality and corruption.
The fight in Springfield, the fourth-largest city in New England, is part of a broader debate, playing out from London to Wisconsin, over the use of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology to ensure public safety. The battle is heightened by racial tensions sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
It also comes as the concept of surveilling schoolchildren is debated, with researchers and digital privacy experts saying it affects the mental health of students, fuels the school-to-prison pipeline, and is less effective in stopping school violence than counseling and other social supports.
“Surveillance technologies are not actually what young people need,” said Kade Crockford, a technology advocate for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We need to be looking at root causes, instead of continuing to do the same thing that we have been doing in the United States for decades now, which is to arrest our way out of issues.”
Juanita Batchelor, a grandmother of four students in the district, said she grew concerned when she learned about the new program.
Her eldest granddaughter, a 14-year-old who is about to enter the eighth grade at Forest Park Middle School, has struggled with behavioral issues since losing her father to gun violence seven years ago. Now that students can be monitored in real time, Batchelor said she is worried that her grandchild, who is Black, could become a target of the police.
“If she’s having an outburst, the police might come and jack her up,” Batchelor, 46, said. “Because of her behaviors, the police looking at her might consider her a threat, instead of a child who lost a parent to gun violence at 7 years old.”
Ryan Walsh, a spokesman for the Springfield Police Department, said the goal of the agreement is to make the Springfield Public Schools “as safe as possible and to provide an environment where public safety and student wellness run hand-in-hand.”
Tensions around surveillance in Springfield started in April, when Maria Perez, a member of the School Committee, proposed a memorandum of agreement during a committee hearing that would give law enforcement real-time access to student video streams. Police officials said an arrangement with the schools would allow law enforcement to access video quickly and track down suspects quicker in an emergency, such as a mass school shooting.
William Baker, head of security for the school district, testified at the hearing about a time he was woken up in the middle of the night by police looking for school video, after a shooting near William N. DeBerry Elementary School. After one hearing in early April, the agreement was approved by a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Domenic Sarno breaking the tie.
The agreement, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe, shows that a select number of law enforcement officials will be able to — under certain circumstances — immediately access live video footage on school cameras that record external and internal student activity.
Internal video footage, which parents and advocates said they are most worried about sharing with law enforcement due to privacy concerns, can be accessed if police are responding to a “public safety emergency situation,” a “non-emergency law enforcement situation,” or participating in “law-enforcement training,” such as for their emergency services unit, according to records and police officials.
In the case of an emergency, law enforcement can access video footage without prior approval, documents show, but police must “as soon as practicable” notify the school’s security office that they have gained access to video. In other cases, approval to access footage must be obtained from school security officials first.
Privacy experts raised significant concerns with the document, details of which were earlier reported by Masslive. Allowing law enforcement to access live footage without prior permission in the event of an “emergency” brought the most concern, experts said. The word “emergency” is not appropriately defined, and can be liberally used to gain video access, thereby increasing the potential for abuse, they said.
There is also worry that more police officers having access to the database of student video increases the opportunity for cyber breaches. Access could also become problematic if police ever choose to use facial recognition technology in schools, they added.
“There’s not a whole lot of non-law enforcement checks and balances in place to ensure that the judgment of the police tracks with what the school community thinks is appropriate,” the ACLU’s Crockford said, adding that the agreement should be removed entirely.
Walsh, the Springfield police spokesman, said the agreement is “not intended — nor shall it be used — to unduly deprive students of safety, comfort and personal privacy in the school setting,” adding that “it shall not be used to surveil or unduly punish students for routine administrative rule violations.”
Aside from Springfield, school districts across the country are grappling with the ethical issues involved in allowing police to monitor students. Boston’s public school district does not allow police to access school camera footage without permission from school officials, a district spokesman said, but other districts across the country — from Long Island, N.Y., to Middleton, Wis. — have enacted similar measures, sparking concerns from digital freedom advocates.
“We’re in the middle of a student privacy crisis,” said Jason Kelley, assistant director of research and activism for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy group. “When [students] are monitored, they censor themselves. They learn they aren’t trusted, and they aren’t safe.”
For residents and officials in Springfield, a significant issue at hand is giving video access to a police department that has a notorious reputation for brutality. In 2020, the Trump administration’s Department of Justice issued a scathing report of the Springfield Police Department, which showed a rogue narcotics unit routinely beat citizens and filed misleading or false arrest reports to cover up their assaults. The city’s police commissioner vowed to implement the DOJ’s recommendations.
Denise Hurst, a School Committee member who voted against the agreement, said the arrangement needs to be reconsidered because it “further erodes trust” the community has in the police force, and could lead to a higher arrest rate for juveniles of color. She added that despite assurances from the Police Department that footage will not be used to monitor students, there is not enough oversight in the agreement.
“I don’t have full confidence this is a process that I, or the community, can trust,” she said, “considering the history of our department.”
Krista Gale, 50, who has two children in Springfield’s public schools, said she is upset that parents did not have input on the language in the agreement. She added that while no formal attempts are planned to overturn the document, she has worked to do so.
“I would like to see it completely scrapped,” Gale said. “I don’t want the police involved in my kids’ education.”