Vote 'no' on spy cameras in Lockport's schools  

Jim Shultz

The leaders of Lockport City School District genuinely care about our children and want the best for them. I have no doubt of that. But sometimes people who run things make mistakes and I believe that the Lockport district is making a big mistake with its plan to spend $2.7 million to install high-tech spy surveillance cameras in our schools. That is a huge amount of money that could be far better spent on our children’s education and on much wiser security measures as well.

On May 15th we will have a chance as voters to have our say on the issue, by voting "NO" on the district’s proposed 2018-2019 budget, unless the district calls a halt to its spy cameras project.

There are three fundamental problems with the district’s plan.

First, it is a huge waste of taxpayer money that will not make our schools safer. Facial recognition, the expensive technology at the heart of the district’s plan, has never been used in this way before in any school in the U.S. It will cost more than $500 per student and is deeply flawed as a security system. For example, it turns out that its expensive "gun recognition" capability can be blocked by simply putting the weapon in a $15 backpack from Walmart. This is not how the district should be spending our money.

Second, the project would be an unprecedented invasion of student and teacher privacy. The consultant who helped design the system boasted its capabilities at the March board meeting. Cameras will record the hallway movements of every student, teacher and staff member every day. At any point in the future (a semester from now, a year from now) the system can be programmed to go back and retrieve all of a person’s daily movements: Where did you go? What did you do? Who did you speak to? This is the kind of system the Russian government uses to spy on dissidents. Living under this kind of surveillance should not be a requirement to go to school in Lockport.

When the privacy issue was raised at that March meeting it was dismissed away as a joke about the likelihood of North Korea hacking into student records. The privacy concerns raised by this system are not a joke. They are real and they are serious.

Third, the people of Lockport have been completely left in the dark about all this. If you never heard anything about these cameras until just the last few weeks, there is a reason. Under state law the school district is required to consult with teachers, students, parents and the community about the plan. The district filed a report with state education authorities claiming that it did so. In fact, what the board actually did was hold a "public comment period" on a Wednesday afternoon in August when, unsurprisingly, no one came and no one commented. As students, teachers and taxpayers, we deserve real consultation on the plan, not this pretend version.

The funding for this project is coming from a 2014 state bond act that gives the Lockport district $4.2 million to spend on technology education. In Williamsville the schools are using their money to ramp up internet speeds in the classrooms. Clarence and Orchard Park are buying new laptops and tablets. The Lockport district wants to spend most of our money on spy cameras. That’s not an accident. The "security consultant" who the district relied on to develop its plan has admitted to having a financial relationship with the same company marketing the cameras. Lockport’s students deserve better than this.

Fortunately, it is not too late to stop this project from going forward. On May 15th the Lockport district is required to put next year’s school budget before local voters. We should vote NO on that budget unless the cameras project is put on hold.

To some this might seem a drastic step. In fact, this is exactly why school districts in New York are required to submit their budgets to a vote of the people. It is so that we as voters have the final say if the district is making a mistake. If wasting $2.7 million on high-tech spy cameras isn’t reason enough for voters to intervene, what is?

New York law also has a solid back-up plan in place if a district’s budget is rejected. The Lockport board can drop its camera plan, amend its budget, and resubmit it to voters again in June, leaving plenty of time to get ready for the new school year. Better still, the board could vote to drop its plan before the May 15th vote.

I have a daughter at Lockport High School and I believe as strongly as anyone that our students and teachers deserve to be safe in our schools. But we need to do that wisely, not by wasting nearly $3 million on a system that no other school wants, that makes no common sense, and that was developed through a process that is suspect at best.

If you have children in Lockport schools and care about their education, then on May 15th take a few minutes out of your day and vote. Vote NO to a waste of our money and against a high-tech invasion of your child’s privacy. We can do better than this.

 

Jim Shultz is a parent and grandparent in Lockport. He can be reached via email at: jimshultz@democracyctr.org.