Cameras to Be Mounted outside Philly's 'Toughest' High Schools

14 cameras slated for first phase; system powerful enough to record license plates over a block away


High-powered cameras that can photograph an automobile license plate a block-and-a-half away soon will be mounted outside four of the toughest Philadelphia high schools, school district officials announced yesterday.

An estimated eight to 14 "pan, tilt and zoom" cameras will be mounted around each school to document the criminals who lurk in school shadows. The schools have not yet been selected.

"There are a lot of perpetrators hanging around our schools... . Smile, you're on candid camera," said district chief executive Paul Vallas, who said he got the idea from law-enforcement agencies.

He said he was not aware of any other district using such high-powered cameras, which will cost about $1,000 each. Similar cameras are mounted outside many federal government buildings, including the U.S. Federal Building and Court House at 6th and Market streets.

"I'm excited about it, and I think it's going to make a difference," said Dexter Green, the district's chief safety executive.

In recent years, crimes committed outside schools have, indeed, been more violent than those committed inside. The highest-profile case claimed the life of Faheem Thomas-Childs, a third-grader, caught in gang crossfire while on his way to T.M. Peirce Elementary School in February 2004.

Just during this current school year:

In January, James Boone Jr., 18, was fatally shot, allegedly by Kurtis Graves, 16, outside Dobbins Technical High School during class dismissal. Neither attended the school.

In November, Jalil Speaks, 16, was fatally shot and three other students wounded, allegedly by Desmond Keels, 16, outside Strawberry Mansion High School. Speaks and Keels attended the school.

Currently, there are 887 cameras inside high schools, 220 inside middle schools and 195 inside elementary schools, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

In addition to the high-powered outside cameras, the district this year plans to install apartment-building-like entrance cameras in 60 elementary schools, eight to 12 inside cameras at 30 elementary schools and an undetermined number of cameras inside middle schools and low-crime high schools.

The cameras are one of a host of school upgrades that will be paid for with $31 million in bonds financed by a dedicated revenue stream from the Philadelphia Eagles, the Philadelphia Phillies and Spectacor Arena, L.P., owner of the Wachovia Center.

The funding is the result of a deal City Council worked out with the teams during negotiations to build the sports stadiums.

"Out-of-the-box thinking is so important when you are talking about making aggressive reforms," said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who was instrumental in sealing the deal.

Vallas said the bond issue would allow the school upgrades to be done over the next 18 months rather than over 15 years.

The new cameras will cost $2 million; $16 million will be spent on classroom modernization such as science labs, mobile laptop carts, on-line libraries and electronic chalk boards; $13 million will go for sports facilities, and equipment for bands and sports.

The first schools to receive the upgrades will be those transitioning into grade K-8 schools and low-performing schools.