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HU board approves 24/7 surveillance

Over student and faculty protests, the Harwood Union School Board voted 6-1 to run video surveillance cameras inside the school 24/7.

Seated in the school library, surrounded by students and a handful of staff members as well as a large banner on which students had written their objections to surveillance and posted placards explaining their objections, the board heard student after student voice their objections.

Students were not alone in objecting. At least three teachers were present to challenge the proposed policy. Students and teachers alike asked why there had been so little communication to each group about the proposed policy. They objected to having to read about it in the local newspapers and said that the fact that they weren't made a part of the process made it illegitimate.

The board acknowledged that there was an issue with the breakdown in communication and board member Chris Koliba challenged the students and the staff and the board to come up with a solution that didn't involve the cameras being on 24/7.

"Why did it take five months to hear from the student community? Vandals cost all of us over $100,000 this spring and no one stepped up as far as I know. Where is the accountability? Someone knew something? Why was everyone so quiet about that? Why have there been two lockdowns at Harwood and why was there a sexting issue last year? Why does it take cameras and activism on the part of a board member to get a student reaction? If we can get the student body to partner with the staff and administration on this, I'll be the first one to re-open this policy," Koliba said prior to the vote.

Board chair Deb Hunter said she supported the policy but did so with a heavy heart. Board member Daley told students that there is nowhere they'd go when they leave Harwood where they would not be under surveillance. Board member Dale Smeltzer likened the cameras to an invasion of privacy no worse than those caused by computers and cellphones. Board member David Goodman remained steadfast in his opposition to surveilling students during school hours.

Students and teachers felt otherwise. Teacher Steve Rand said he felt having the cameras on during the day would affect the climate in the school with regard to respect and trust.

"We're embracing something in our culture currently that normalizes surveillance when it should, in my view, be the extreme exception," Rand said.

Gretchen Stahl, who has been teaching at Harwood for 27 years, said, "These are our children and we are their community and they will make mistakes. We want them to and we want to be there for them when they do. These are our children that we're sending out into the world. We want them to take risks. They must in order to grow, to feel the edges of things and to step off knowing that their safety net is trust and that we trust them," Stahl said.

"Loss of freedom in the quest for security would be the biggest loss of all freedom. For these children to walk down the halls to get a sip of water, to use the restrooms, to go to their lockers, to curse or say hello to each other, the freedom to walk in these halls in this place we call a safety zone, this place we call our school – what are we teaching them when we turn cameras on them? Are we teaching them about trust and the freedom to make mistakes and know that the community is there for them and for us? These children are going out into the world into a place we haven't been. They are our scouts, our pioneers, our futures," she added.

Co-principals Amy Rex and Lisa Atwood explained that they had communicated the proposed policy to teachers and department heads and asked that it be passed on to students. They also reiterated that the video would essentially be a 30-day loop that would never be seen – unless there were an incident.

Students asked if other options had been considered and were told that alarm systems and hiring a security guard were considered but both were cost prohibitive.

"Hiring a watchman at night doesn't pertain to what this hearing is about. This is about 24/7 surveillance. During school hours there are people in the hallway making sure students are doing what they're supposed to be doing. The vandalism isn't going to happen during the day. If someone wants to commit serious vandalism, they will, even with the cameras. People are already talking about how to spray the camera with black paint or they will smash them," said a sophomore.

Another student, who identified himself as Nick, said, "I'm expected to come here every day and every second of my school day there will be a camera on me. Is this supposed to help me want to go to school? Or help me take my tests? I'm a senior and I was not even asked how I felt about this. Why were we not asked? When you turn on the cameras this will no longer be like a school but rather a prison. I saw tape over two cameras today. I wonder what will happen when they are actually turned on."

Another student questioned why the issued hadn't been brought to students during their bimonthly assemblies and added, "This is something that affects us so much. There should have been an assembly. We come here 180 days a year and these cameras are going to be watching us every one of those days. None of you board members are at school every day like we are."

Sophmore Anna Van Dyne read to the board some of the messages on placards along the back wall of the library. "Dear School Board, everyone needs privacy. Privacy used to be respected. Invasion of privacy leads to loss of trust. 24/7 surveillance means we'll have to go to the bathroom to be alone."

Superintendent Brigid Scheffert said she understood the students' concerns and reiterated that the videotape could only be viewed with her permission.

"I'm in favor of this policy for safety. It has nothing to do with watching you. It has to do with who else may be in your building," Scheffert said.

Teacher Jill Schwenderman asked the board what its plans were to address the root causes of vandalism at the school. Scheffert said she'd been at a board meeting a year ago where students asked that the school have more accountability.

"But the idea of having surveillance was not discussed with us. You're viewing us all as suspects. It's wrong that we were not notified," a student said.

"It's never too late to speak up. I'm hearing this tennis match of students saying they didn't know and teachers saying they didn't know and the administration saying they were notified. Your voice does matter. If you were not consulted, that matters a lot. Last month when I objected to this, it was argued that no students had shown up or objected. I think you've shown us that you do care. It's not too late. We can choose to have the cameras off during the day," Goodman said.

Mimi, a senior, asked if there were other solutions and suggested the board needs to "look at the reasons this is happening. I think it's a general lack of respect between students and faculty. I think the cameras are going to make it worse. It's a slap in the face to students."

Emma, a sophomore, said the idea of cameras on her all day made her uncomfortable and said there was a lack of respect and communication between students and faculty.

"And kids from grades five and six are going to come here, they are going to come into a school with cameras on 24/7 and that will be their normal. They don't deserve that," she added.

Schwenderman asked for clarification as to whether the policy was to protect school property from vandalism and theft, as it stated, or whether it was to somehow make the school more protected from an incident of school violence.

Scheffert said the cameras were a tool and that that tool could be used in a variety of ways.

A state police officer, who was in uniform but did not identify himself, spoke in favor of the policy, telling the group that it is a valuable tool to have cameras running "should any unfortunate incident occur."

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