Metro Baltimore Schools Deploy Surveillance Cameras

BALTIMORE - School systems throughout metropolitan Baltimore are embracing the latest in surveillance technology, adding digital cameras that can zoom-in, detect motion and even see in the dark.

Anne Arundel, Carroll, and Howard counties have plans to expand use of digital video cameras. Baltimore city and county rely more on traditional camera systems, though they are experimenting with digital technology.

``It's just an additional layer of security,'' said Richard Berzinski, acting supervisor of security in Anne Arundel, where nine schools currently have the cameras and where officials are seeking money to eventually have them throughout the system.

Some privacy advocates find the expansion of such surveillance troubling.

``I think we're rearing a generation of schoolchildren who will always be looking over their shoulders,'' said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

Givens recommends staff, parents and students develop a privacy policy to govern how the images are used.

``The school should not have the ability to make a decision or decide a sanction based solely on the contents of video images,'' she said.

Investment by school systems in digital security cameras has grown in recent years. Security concerns were heightened after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and more recently with the terrorist siege on a school in Russia last August.

In Anne Arundel, the digital cameras, activated by motion detectors 24 hours a day, cover selected interior and exterior public portions of the school and grounds, Berzinski said. No cameras are placed in bathrooms, locker rooms or classrooms, he said.

Berzinski said that the cameras are not used for constant surveillance. Instead, the equipment helps school administrators or other authorized personnel in investigating specific incidents.

``We're not sitting there watching monitors,'' he said.

Cameras as well as the signs on school entrances that announce their presence help deter some problems before they happen, Berzinski said. And occasionally, they help exonerate someone who has been accused of an offense. The school system also rotates cameras that can record audio and video on buses, he said.

So far, Anne Arundel has used federal grants to help pay for the installation of cameras, as well as maintenance, which can cost about $8,000 per year, Berzinski said. They continue to apply for additional money.

In neighboring Howard County, two high schools have digital systems and other schools will likely follow, said Steve Drummond, Howard's security coordinator. About 30 of its 70 schools use time-lapse cameras to identify visitors at doors that are not visible from the main office, he said.

In Baltimore County, some high schools have more traditional video systems while others have digital cameras, said spokesman Charles A. Herndon.

Given funding limitations, the next steps include updating current equipment and moving cameras into middle schools.

``Certainly, in a number of cases they have been used to determine who began a fight, who threw the first punch,'' he said.

No schools in Baltimore have digital camera systems, but city officials would like to have them. Many schools have a single closed-circuit camera at their locked entrances, paid for

``As we go about planning for major renovations, or if we were ever to construct a new high school, these types of security considerations would be part of the plan,'' said Carlton G. Epps, the system's chief operating officer.

Officials have begun installing a digital camera at Walbrook High Uniformed Services Academy, the scene of dozens of student-set fires in the fall

In Carroll County, 12 schools have complete systems and a committee is studying how to expand digital camera systems to all Carroll County schools, said Larry Faries, coordinator of security.

Cameras have helped school officials identify culprits in school fires and other incidents.

When videos show students coming out of a restroom with smoke billowing out behind them, Faries said, ``that's a pretty good indication that they might be your primary suspects.''