NYCLU raps school district's security push

CONTRIBUTEDThis screen capture shows graphs illustrating 2015-2016 school year data released by the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection. According to the data, the population of black students in Lockport City School District was 12.3 percent, while black students made up 25.4 percent of the total suspended student population during the school year. 

New York Civil Liberties Union is criticizing Lockport City School District’s desire to move forward with its facial recognition security system after a bill that would impose a moratorium on the technology in schools did not come up for a vote in the state senate.

LCSD Superintendent Michelle Bradley told the Union-Sun & Journal that with the bill stuck in the senate for now — the bill passed in the assembly last week — the district will go back to its plan of an “initial implementation phase” for the security system, which will focus on camera angles and lighting, training and working with law enforcement personnel to ensure they know how to use the system, because they would be alerted if the system detects a weapon. Administrators said they may still fully implement the system in September, which was their original goal. 

The announcement comes after the district was asked by the state education department to delay testing of the facial recognition system on students, to ensure their privacy is properly protected. Bradley said several times that the district can put suspended students into the database, but would not answer definitely whether the district will when the new school year begins in September. She said the district may go the year without suspending any students, and that answering the question now would be premature. 

Johanna Miller, director of the NYCLU’s Education Policy Center, said the organization has a lot of concerns with the system, but that its biggest concern is banning students from a school building due to a disciplinary action.

Lockport’s facial recognition system would alert administrators if a suspended student is on district property, and Miller asserted “it’s really problematic to set a norm that you need this level of security.” She observed that a suspended student may need to come to the school to pick up homework or for other reasons. 

“Students have a right to be in school,” she added. 

Miller said NYCLU is reaching out to the state education department, noting that the organization believes the state should not allow facial recognition security projects to move forward until the senate votes on a related bill that passed in the assembly with “flying colors.” 

The bill, authored by Assembly Member Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, would effectively ban the use of facial recognition technology in schools for one year to allow for further study of the technology, its reliability and impacts on privacy.

“We’re still very confident it will pass in the senate,” Miller said. “We do think it’s very irresponsible for the state education department to let any of these projects go forward in the meantime.”

NYCLU plans to keep pressing on the facial recognition surveillance issue, Miller said, adding that it wants to do more organizing with parents and students in Lockport. 

Miller attacked Bradley’s statement that it’s possible no students will be suspended in the 2019-2020 school year, pointing to data from the U.S. Department of Education showing that black students are disproportionally suspended in the Lockport district. 

Data from the 2015-2016 school year showed LCSD has a black population of 12.3 percent and black students make up 25.4 percent of the suspended-student population.

Miller said it’s common for black students to be overrepresented in suspensions and NYCLU is working to end that. 

“Despite what Michelle Bradley said, we remain very convinced this (the facial recognition security system) will impact suspended students,” Miller added. “They are much more likely to be students of color which is problematic from a civil rights view.”

The state education department also responded Thursday with a statement saying its position remains: Lockport should not turn on the facial recognition software until the state agrees that proper safety protocols are in place. 

“To be clear, the Department has directed the Lockport School District to cease the testing and utilization of facial recognition technology until further notice,” a spokesperson wrote in a prepared statement. “Department staff has consistently communicated to the District that they should refrain from the use of the facial recognition technology until the Department is satisfied that proper protocols and protections are in place and has not deviated from that position. Any testing or implementation that may be occurring is being done contrary to clear direction from the Department.”

The district used $1.4 million of the $4.2 million allocated to it through New York’s Smart Schools Bond Act to acquire and install one of the first facial and object recognition security systems in an American school.

The system relies on the Aegis software suite created by Canadian-based SN Technologies.

The software works by using a database of flagged individuals and sending an alert to district personnel when a flagged person is detected on school property. The software reportedly also will detect 10 types of guns.

The school board adopted a policy this past December outlining how the Aegis system will be governed. According to the policy, those expected to be in the database may include: students who have been suspended, staff suspended or on administrative leave, level 2 and level 3 sex offenders, any person who has been notified that they may not be on district property, anyone prohibited from entering district property by court order or anyone believed to pose a threat. 

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