Did the Lockport school district expend resources to investigate a parent who's vehemently opposed to its facial recognition camera system?
That's one of a series of questions involving the surveillance system that the investigated parent wants answered publicly by district officials.
The Citizens Petition for School District Accountability, posted late Tuesday at iPetitions (https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/LockportDistrictAccountability) calls for accountability on the district's part for the approval and installation of its facial- and object recognition cameras — which have been rendered inoperable, for the next 18 months at least, by a new state law that bars their use while privacy and other issues of biometric security systems in schools are further studied.
The petition, put up by district parent and contributing Union-Sun & Journal columnist Jim Shultz, states the cameras project “was a mistake that cost taxpayers $2.7 million” and it poses a series of questions about:
— "Financial conflicts" on the part of Anthony Olivo, a security consultant to the district who was shown to have a financial stake in SNTechnologies, the company that developed the Aegis software suite that powers the cameras.
— Alerts generated by the system since the district activated it in January 2020, from false matches and any positive matches to faces in the Aegis database of "watched" or unwanted persons.
The petition further poses a single question on the matter of "investigating a parent": "How does the district justify its use of public resources to investigate the background of a parent solely on the basis of him raising questions about a district project?" The question is prefaced with a summary of documented efforts, by or on behalf of the district, to investigate Shultz's background — "his employer, the college he went to, past associations, and other matters."
Among the documents referenced is the transcript of a recorded September 2018 meeting between US&J editorial staff members and district officials including Superintendent Michelle Bradley and Assistant Superintendent Deborah Coder in which Coder revealed Shultz's background was being looked into.
“They were bragging about all the stuff they found out about me on the internet,” Shultz said in a Wednesday telephone interview. “I've been investigated by authoritarian governments in South America and threatened with arrests, but I never thought I'd have to take it from a small city school district. It's insane.”
Shultz said he showed up one day at a school board meeting, in 2018, to suggest the district look more closely into the facial recognition system that they were still exploring at the time, and later learned “they were so threatened, being questioned, that they decided to investigate me.”
“If they'd put that same amount of energy on their surveillance system that they used to investigate me, we wouldn't have wasted $2.7 million on it,” he said.
The petition, which as of late Wednesday had been signed by 46 people, asks the Lockport Board of Education to "promptly reply to these questions."
“The (board) functions on the basis of public trust, but that trust only works if there's accountability when mistakes are made," the petition states. "As a community we have a right to answers to three sets of questions and we are calling on the board to answer these questions, in writing and publicly on the district web site.”
Superintendent Bradley did not respond to the US&J's questions about the petition on Wednesday. School board president Karen Young said she would discuss it with this reporter at a later date.
Follow John D’Onofrio on Twitter with “Good Morning, Lockport, N.Y.” weekday mornings at @LockportJournal.