LCSD moving ahead with use of facial recognition system

File photoLockport City School District administrators say the district may begin using its new facial recognition system on suspended students and they anticipate full system implementation may happen in September. 

In an attempt to address privacy concerns from the New York State Education Department, the Lockport City School District School Board is considering revising the policy it created to govern the use of its controversial facial and object recognition system. 

The board discussed the proposed revisions at its meeting last week. 

LCSD Superintendent Michelle Bradley said district officials met with NYSED officials in June and they expressed some concern over the district’s policy governing the Aegis facial and object recognition system. According to Bradley, their main concerns were over-expanding the appeals process so it doesn’t stop at the superintendent, including all suspended students in the database, and also ensuring the data is secure. 

“This is an attempt to comfort and give some clarification to the state education department,” Bradley said. 

Trustee Edward Sandell expressed some concern about removing suspended students from the categories of people that would be in the Aegis database. 

“Quite frankly I don’t understand why we’re doing that. I feel that if the Aegis system is going to be effective you have to have all these categories in here,” Sandell said. 

Trustee John Craig pointed out that the policy revisions still leave open the possibility for a person considered a threat to be in the database, and he noted that could include suspended students that might be a threat to the district. 

A credible threat is defined in the proposed revisions as “shall be limited to a threat that is referred to the District by law enforcement authorities, or a threat that, given its nature, has been or will be referred by the District to law enforcement authorities.”

Deborah Coder, assistant superintendent of finance and management services, said that if there was such an “egregious” issue with a student the policy still gives the superintendent the ability to put them in the system. 

Trustee Karen Young took issue with the portion that would require the district to notify the state education department of any changes to the categories of people who can be placed in the database. Sandell observed that it says they have to notify the state education department, but it doesn’t require that they approve the changes. 

As a result of the discussion, the board is suggesting to revise the policy to encrypt the data used, narrow the definition of a credible threat to a person that law enforcement believes to be a threat, add in the ability to appeal a decision to the board of education and that the district will not add to the categories of people in the database unless they notify the state education department and consult with them. 

The policy revisions will be read for a second time in August before they are made effective, Board President John Linderman said. 

Jim Shultz, one of the main critics of the Aegis facial recognition system, this is not only about suspended students.

“It is about every single student in the school being recorded by high-tech surveillance that can be used to go back later and track all their movements and associations,” Shultz said. “District officials don’t even understand the system they bought but they want us to blindly trust them to manage it.” 

J.P. O’Hare, a spokesperson for the New York State Education Department, said his department has not received the proposed revisions and that when they are received they will be reviewed to ensure that “proper protocols and protections are in place to protect students and student data.” 

He reiterated that LCSD has been directed to cease the testing and utilization of the software system until further notice.

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. If the policy revision passes, it will take out suspended students as a category.