School officials hope to begin installation of camera equipment at Bedford High School soon after Annual Town Meeting adjourns near the end of March, if voters authorize the expenditure.
Town Meeting appropriations normally are effective beginning with the ensuing fiscal year, July 1, but Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang hopes part of the Fiscal 2025 capital article can be funded through free cash that would make it available immediately.
Chuang originally wanted to accelerate the installation to winter break by using funds allocated by the 2023 Town Meeting, but he was advised that the appropriation was specific for the purchase of exterior security measures.
He explained his current strategy to the School Committee on Tuesday and to the Capital Expenditure Committee on Wednesday. That panel subsequently voted to forward the entire capital article, including the school security provision, to the Select Board and Finance Committee for inclusion on the Annual Town Meeting warrant.
Access to and placement of cameras in the schools are regulated by a policy approved by the school committee earlier this fall. The policy excludes monitoring classrooms and bathrooms, and recordings are eventually deleted.
“We have been very mindful of privacy concerns,” Chuang said.
The superintendent told the Capital Expenditure Committee that in a 2022 safety and security consultant’s report, “the absence of security cameras was identified as the top vulnerability for each one of our schools.”
“I feel we are negligent as a town in not having this tool available,” asserted Chuang, adding that this could deter professional recruitment “because it is such an expectation.”
Bedford High School Principal Heather Galante said, “This town loves their teachers. And for a well-resourced district, it’s unconscionable that we don’t have cameras at this point.”
If the capital article is approved, Chuang said, the head start will enable the installation of most planned cameras in the four schools by the start of the 2024-25 academic year.
He added that “we are still considering if there are non-capital funds available,” perhaps delaying a purchase that is less time-sensitive. That could allow “very modest” installations in high-traffic areas.
“There is overwhelming support for the use of cameras, as has become commonplace in the country and the commonwealth,” Chuang told the committee, quoting the statistic that 97 percent of high schools equipped. They are a “universal recommendation of all school safety organizations.”
The plan has been endorsed by Bedford Police Chief John Fisher, who wants to “partner with this basic technological tool,” he noted.
The only pushback came from Select Board Emily Mitchell, who is also a member of the Capital Expenditure Committee. Mitchell told the School Committee that she is concerned about “the long-term implications of creating a surveillance state in our schools.” She told the Capital Expenditure Committee that there is no data that validate the need to prioritize the technology.
“The cameras are not actually about safety. They are not about prevention. They are about investigation and punishment,” Mitchell asserted.
“I don’t think there is a definitive way to determine whether cameras decrease risk,” Chuang answered. But it is “pretty telling” that school safety organizations say they “have not come across a school administrator who does not use some level of interior cameras for security purposes.”
Mitchell ultimately voted to approve the capital plan, although she applied a lower priority to the school safety line.
The superintendent pointed out that the schools are also open for general use, often open evenings and weekends.
“When things occur, there is no ability to hold people accountable and that raises the level of anxiety. We would like to believe that these things don’t happen in Bedford, but they do.”
He said, “Since our last meeting, there have been many situations that could have been prevented or resolved much more quickly” if the cameras had been in place.
Galante said that “we are not a secure building.” She enumerated three unresolved incidents just this week that “leave a bad feeling for our students:” a sink torn from a bathroom wall, a bullying allegation stemming from a hallway confrontation, and a report of an unidentified person in the building.
Surveys indicate that 85-to-90 percent of BHS students feel a close relationship with at least one adult at the school, but because there are no cameras to support investigation, “we exploit that relationship to help solve some of these issues.”
The concern is not just physical safety, but also “emotional safety, Galante said. “We have students who last year had to see racist graffiti strewn across our hall. That causes irreparable harm. We weren’t able to properly resolve that.”
School Committee member Brad Morrison, who also is a member of the Capital Expenditure Committee, added that not only students, but also teachers and administrators are dealing with emotional challenges, many of them residual from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Showing them [that] we care by creating the environment they want is a critical step,” he said. “Give the educators the tools they need to create an environment where students can thrive.”
At Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, BHS junior Shreyes Shivappa, student representative on the panel, urged Chuang to “amplify the student voice” on the issue as “a way to make us feel safe.”
Chuang stressed that “it is not intended to change the day-to-day experience. I don’t want to fortify our school so it doesn’t feel like a campus.”
Chuang also outlined for the Capital Expenditure Committee the longer-range safety and security capital agenda. This year was supposed to be focused on improved electronic communication and door access control, some of which has been stalled by supply-chain slowdowns, he said. Following the cameras, plans call for interior door security and shatter-proof glass.
“A lot of these are incremental,” the superintendent said, with implementation staggered according to the consultant’s ranking of risk.
Member Frank Battaglia questioned the need for 125 cameras. Facilities Director Ron Scaltreto pointed out that stairwells need several cameras, as opposed to a long stretch of hallway.
“I believe it was a good-faith estimate to make sure we had adequate coverage,” Chuang said.
Capital Expenditure Committee member Mary Ellen Carter suggested that the Bedford schools initiate their own data compilation on cameras’ efficacy. Galante said she would be happy to report incidents before and after installation and how they were resolved.
In answer to a question from member Audrey Gould, Chuang said the district passed over several recommendations from the security consultant. Fencing the entryways to Davis and Lane Schools “to me would create an environment that is not welcoming,” he said.
Installation of more than 100 bollards was recommended “to prevent someone driving up to the building and bust through the glass.” The rejected items were in the report’s text, but “did not make the threat matrix,” he emphasized.