An agreement narrowly approved by the Springfield School Committee in April will give city police the ability to view live footage from school security cameras.

The city is working to finalize the agreement, which proponents argue will give police a critical, real-time window into the schools in an emergency situation such as a shooting. But opponents argue it affords law enforcement broad powers to conduct remote surveillance of the city’s students — particularly Black and Latino children.

“This feels tone deaf, especially with what’s going on with police departments across the country,” said Denise Hurst, a School Committee member who voted against the agreement. “And with ours in particular.”

The 4-3 vote in favor of the agreement followed more than a half-hour of discussion at the committee’s April 8 meeting.

Voting to approve the agreement were Vice Chairman Christopher Collins, Peter Murphy and Maria Perez. Voting against were Hurst, Barbara Gresham and LaTonia Monroe Naylor. Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, who serves as the committee’s chair under the city’s charter, was the tie-breaking vote in favor of the proposal.

Police tactics and strategies have been under renewed scrutiny nationwide in the wake of a Minneapolis officer’s murder of George Floyd, captured by a bystander’s video in May 2020. The Springfield Police Department, meanwhile, was the subject of a recent Department of Justice review. In a report released last summer, the Justice Department alleged a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations by Springfield narcotics officers.

There have been two incidents in recent years where surveillance video recorded Springfield police officers assaulting students. In 2018, Angel Marrero, a Quebec Unit officer assigned to the schools, was seen slamming a student into a wall at Commerce High School. He pleaded guilty to assault and submitting a false report.

A few months later, a second Quebec Unit officer, Lawrence Pietucci, was seen lifting a disobedient student out of a chair and wrestling him to the ground. He was suspended for five days.

“In the midst of calls for us to examine the role of police in the schools, I do not believe it is a move in the right direction to give (police) access to the inside of school buildings,” Hurst said.

Police spokesman Ryan Walsh said the new policy will allow the department’s Real Time Analysis Center to tap into school security footage. The center already has access to some municipal cameras and even some authorized private feeds across the city.

The center would only access the footage during an emergency, Walsh said, when video analysts could call up school footage for an immediate look at the situation and relay information to responding officers.

“It would not be online patrolling,” Walsh said.

Each of the city’s schools is equipped with security cameras that offer exterior views of the building perimeter and interior views of hallways and common areas.

No one on the committee has an issue with police access to exterior views — but the interior views, particularly during school hours, are a point of contention. Giving anyone access to school security footage is a sensitive subject in part because students have a legal expectation of privacy once they enter a school building.

According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law, schools are required to maintain the privacy of students and their educational records. Typically, photos and videos taken on school property can only be released when parents or guardians grant permission. But the law has carved out an exception allowing school security to provide footage in response to a search warrant obtained by police.

Security footage is not necessarily part of a student’s educational records, unless the student is disciplined for an incident captured on video.

At present, city police do not have real-time access to school security feeds, either interior or exterior.

If police want to review footage, they must request it from school security. Police officials then go to the School Department’s security office and review the footage in person.

At the April meeting, William Baker, head of security for the School Department, said police woke him up one night following a fatal shooting near the William N. DeBerry Elementary School, and detectives wanted to review the school’s exterior footage.

Under the proposal, police personnel at the Real Time Analysis Center would be able to log onto the school system and view footage immediately. Walsh said the proposal includes strict guidelines — limiting such use of the system to emergency situations, and limiting access to analysis center staff and a group of detectives and supervisors. Police will be required to log each time they access the system, documenting who signed in and why.

All footage will remain the property of the school department. Police will not be allowed to make a copy without submitting a written request to the school department and agreeing to block out the faces of any students seen in the footage.

Secondary schools and some college campuses nationwide have begun giving police access to video feeds in the wake of a plague of school shootings.

Schools in Suffolk County, New York, in 2019 enacted a policy called Sharing to Help Access Remote Entry, or SHARE. The policy patches police into 68 separate school security feeds. Police leaders said at the time that the system would only be used in emergency incidents, to provide responding officers “with the description and location of the threat, which would be vital to apprehending the person and stopping the threat.”

Collins, the Springfield School Committee’s vice chair, voted in favor of the policy — but only after sweeping revisions that included a set of guardrails to prevent police abuse.

The original draft lacked what he called basic protections for the privacy rights of students and staff, and would have allowed anyone in the police department to log on.

“They could have had continual surveillance,” he said. “I said ‘send it back. I’m not bringing it to the committee.’”

In a worst-case scenario, he said, the original policy would have allowed someone in the police department to use the security network to spy on an ex-spouse employed at a school.

The revised policy sets restrictions on who can view the video and for what purpose, he said.

The school department’s priority is “to protect the privacy of our employees and students,” he said.

The cameras are for emergencies only, and police are barred from using the feed, for example, to monitor a student suspected of a crime outside of school, Collins said.

“No one is going to be doing ‘surveillance’ in our buildings,” he said. “You do your police work outside of the building. We don’t allow warrant arrests inside our buildings.”

Naylor, who voted against the agreement, said she felt the policy has too many “gray areas” that need clarification. She cited the potential for misuse and the intrusion on privacy is too great, in particular for students of color.

She said she wanted more answers but felt the vote was rushed through. She said she also would have preferred the school committee conduct a town meeting to alert parents of the change and gauge their response.

As an example of a gray area, she cited the policy’s definition of what constitutes an emergency situation.

“It doesn’t have to be a 911 call,” she said.

Is it an emergency if someone is in a school with a gun? Is a fight in a hallway an emergency? What about someone on school grounds selling drugs?

“What we call surveillance, they call an ‘emergency situation,’” she said.

The Republican asked both the School Department and the Police Department for a copy of the April 8 agreement. Each said it was unavailable.

Walsh said the final text of the agreement is still being hammered out by the city Law Department.

This came as news to both Hurst and Naylor, who each said it was their understanding that the April 8 vote approved the final wording of the agreement.

“Then what did we vote on?” Hurst asked. “There was a document, it went through the subcommittee, and then it came before the committee.”

Walsh said the connection between the school security system and the analysis center has not been programmed yet.

“The goal is to be ready for the fall,” he said.

Naylor and Hurst each said it was telling that the three no votes were cast by women of color — while Sarno, Murphy and Collins, three white men, voted in favor.

As women and mothers of color, Naylor said, they each have different perspectives about police surveillance that Sarno, Murphy and Collins do not have.

She also cited a lingering distrust people of color have toward the Springfield police, based on the department’s checkered history with race and with the civil rights abuses alleged in the Justice report.

Hurst, who identifies as half Black and half Latina, said, “We are three women who represent the majority of our students in the district. We are paying attention to the racial reality.”

She said Black and brown children have disproportionately been the focus of disciplinary actions while in school and targeted by law enforcement as teens and young adults.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing,” she said.

Hurst also said she voted against the agreement because she never heard a reason for why the issue had come up.

“There was no real impetus as to why,” she said. “Why now?”

If police access to school cameras is solely about increasing safety and preventing shootings, she asked, why wasn’t it proposed after the 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, or even the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown, Connecticut?

“My gut tells me that this has already been happening and they are trying to codify it in policy,” she said.

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