A week after a spate of violence in Baltimore schools, officials announced yesterday their latest strategy to keep children safe: blanketing campuses with digital surveillance cameras.
The city's school system and Police Department have received a $500,000 federal grant, which must be matched with local money, to install 280 cameras at 10 schools. Over the summer, the city spent $1.1 million to install about 575 cameras in 11 other schools, averaging 52 cameras per school.
Booker T. Washington Middle, the school with the most cameras, has 99 of the devices, three outside and 96 inside. Calverton Middle has 92.
At a news conference at Pimlico Elementary/Middle School, officials stressed that the initiative was under way long before last week, when a 14-year-old girl was stabbed by a classmate and an 8-year-old boy brought a loaded gun to school.
Schools Police Chief Antonio Williams said the cameras already installed seem to be effective in curbing student mischief, though he did not offer any preliminary figures on the opening weeks of classes.
"The students are literally saying, `We can't get away with anything,'" said Williams, appearing with Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm and schools interim Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston.
Surveillance cameras are used to some extent by school systems around the region, including those in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Around the country, they are commonly found in urban school systems, and sometimes in suburban and rural systems.
Before this school year, the Baltimore school system had digital cameras on four campuses: Harlem Park Elementary, Mount Royal Elementary/Middle, Northwestern High and the Walbrook high school campus. In addition, many schools have a closed-circuit camera at their entrances, enabling front-office staff to buzz visitors into locked buildings.
This summer, the city paid to install cameras at 11 schools that would be receiving more students as a result of other schools closing and consolidating. Most of those cameras are inside the school buildings, said Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the city Police Department.
For the next batch of schools, Mahoney said, most of the cameras will be located outside in an attempt to make students feel safer coming to and from the buildings and to deter break-ins of teachers' cars. The schools were selected based on the frequency of problems inside and outside their campuses.
The grant for the project was awarded by the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which gave $14.8 million to 174 local law enforcement agencies nationwide for school safety initiatives.
Each of the 10 schools in Baltimore is to receive 28 cameras, to be installed over the next 18 months. By the time the project is complete, there will be 1,037 digital cameras in 25 city schools, up from 757 now.
Pimlico, which this year began converting from an elementary school to a combined elementary/middle school, is one of the campuses where cameras were installed this summer. The school received 69 cameras, recording everywhere but the inside of classrooms and bathrooms.
Principal Orrester Shaw showed reporters how he can watch from his office on five screens. But asked who monitors the cameras, Shaw replied, "I wish we had someone to do that. We are instructional leaders. We are in the classroom."
While Shaw said he would love to hire someone to watch the cameras throughout the day, he said it's been helpful to have tapes to look back on when incidents arise.
The recordings are automatically stored for 90 days. In the event of an emergency, they can be immediately accessed at city and school police headquarters and by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Kenneth Trump, president of a Cleveland-based school safety consulting firm, said cameras can be effective as one piece of a comprehensive plan to improve school safety.
"Cameras are a deterrent for those who are deterrable, and they serve as evidence for those who aren't," Trump said. "Security equipment is only as good as the human effort behind it."
The issue of school safety has been on the minds of many Baltimore parents over the past week.
On Oct. 9, about 100 Digital Harbor High students looked on as two of their classmates fought several blocks from the school, smashing a car windshield. On Oct. 11, police say, a 14-year-old girl at Pimlico Middle School was stabbed in the arm by a 13-year-old classmate with a 10-inch kitchen knife. That same day, about 200 pupils at Holabird Elementary were locked inside their school for more than four hours after a shooting in the neighborhood.
On Oct. 12, an 8-year-old boy brought a revolver into his third-grade class at Grove Park Elementary, and another boy looking at the gun in his desk accidentally pulled the trigger. And last Friday, a 14-year-old boy was shot outside Frederick Douglass High during a football game.
Williams, the schools police chief, said yesterday that the victims of the Pimlico stabbing and the Douglass shooting are making full recoveries. He said police are still investigating the various incidents, including how the 8-year-old at Grove Park got access to a gun.
In the aftermath of last week's violence, some community leaders called for the installation of walk-through metal detectors in city schools. Williams has said that he would support having metal detectors in schools as a precaution but that it is not financially practical. He reiterated yesterday that the system is not going to rush to buy them.
The schools police force does conduct random student weapon searches at middle and high schools with hand-held metal detector wands.
Meanwhile, officials are continuing to try to reassure parents that their children are safe, calling last week's incidents an aberration. In a letter sent home with children Wednesday, Boston pointed to a survey conducted last school year in which 83 percent of parents responded that they believe their children are safe in city schools.
Urging parents to review safety procedures with their children, the letter said: "Last week we addressed several incidents involving a few students whose actions temporarily overshadowed the wonderful progress being made in providing the quality education that our 83,337 students deserve."
Schools where cameras will be installed (28 cameras each):
Schools where cameras were installed this summer:
Schools that already had cameras:
Source: Baltimore City Public School System and Baltimore Police Department