As the Fairfax County School Board prepares for a Dec. 15 vote on whether to allow principals to request and install video surveillance cameras inside their high schools, some members say the process used to reach a decision has not been a thorough or "truly balanced" one.
Outstanding issues on data, financing and community feedback dominated comments by community and school board members at the board's regular meeting Thursday night.
But at the core of those issues is a larger problem, said member Dan Storck (Mt.Vernon): "Has there been a board process on this? The answer is no," he said.
"I'm not questioning the integrity of the staff that’s been involved but ... this board needs to consider how we present an issue with this significant of a change. The board really needs to grapple with that," he said.
Though a formal vote and discussion won't happen for another two weeks, board members questioned FCPS Chief Operating Officer Dean Tistadt, who made a brief presentation to clarify what he said was some misinformation and confusion among community members about the proposal.
The Fairfax County High School Principals Association and the schools’ Department of Facilities and Transportation Services saying the program could help administrators curb disciplinary issues like food fights, physical altercations or drug dealing. Results from meetings with school communities, " were presented to the board at a November work session.
Exterior monitoring and surveillance on school buses is already in place. Interior surveillance is allowed “on a temporary basis when there is reasonable suspicion of a violation of policy or regulation and reasonable suspicion that the violative conduct, or physical evidence related to that conduct, may be found in the location identified for surveillance," but not in the ongoing nature the proposal suggests.
The policy does not include guidelines for circumstances in which the cameras can be reviewed, nor would it allow cameras in classrooms or areas with a "reasonable expectation of privacy," such as locker rooms and restrooms.
According to the Dec. 1 draft of the policy, the superintendent would be charged with signing off on an additional approval process, which would have to include proof of principal engagement and support from faculty, staff students and parents, Tistadt said.
It's not clear what the requirements for that engagement or validation process would be.
The schools that do install cameras would have to provide annual reports on the program to the board. FCPS does not currently maintain data on school bus cameras.
He also said the cameras would not replace human monitoring of cafeterias and other "hot spots," but would instead serve as an additional tool for behavior, safety and security.
"This is not some sort of panacea ... but an additional tool to supplement things already under way," Tistadt said.
Sandy Evans (Mason), who along with Storck suggested last month the board hold off on the decision, asked Tistadt for data on the program's effectiveness.
Tistadt said "[FCPS'] experience has been it is an effective deterrent," but he has "no explicit scientific data that supports success of interior cameras."
Evans also asked if a previous pilot for cameras in lunch lines was discontinued because it was not successful. Tistadt said they were removed because they did not achieve the pilot goal.
Michele Menapace, a parent and member of Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform, said in the public comment portion of the meeting there have been varying and inconsistent responses and data on how the program would be funded, which, among other things, does not make her confident about how the proposal would actually be implemented.
"We don’t have good data on what it’s gong to cost or what it will save," Menapace said. "Let staff find the time to give you hard data that the new board can use."
Tistadt said eight schools could fund interior cameras with proffer funds. Some of the remaining schools would be able to cover costs through revenue from vending machines, gate receipts and other non-appropriated funding.
Schools still unable to afford the program, typically those that don't raise the same amount of money through vending and sporting events as those in more affluent areas, would be able to fund a surveillance program through already paid capital improvement bonds for safety and security. The system gets about $500,000 a year in safety and security funding, which goes toward programs like the "buzz-in" technology at the county's elementary schools.
Using these avenues, there would be virtually no "new money" needed to implement the program, he said.
Public funds would not be used for cameras, Tistadt said.
Patty Reed (Providence), who has previously expressed her support for surveillance cameras, asked Tistadt for a "matrix" of evidence and data from both sides of the issue before the Dec. 15 vote so members could better process all the sides they've heard and make a more informed decision.
Tina Hone (At-large) said she was neutral on the proposal, but, like Storck, "deeply troubled" by the board process.
"Even tonight we have had very good and fair explanation from [Tistadt] about what the policy is and why it works and why our staff is apparently supportive of it but this is a sensitive enough issue where it would be [good to have a] cogent expert on the other side," Hone said. "It would have been better for our decision making process. It’s not just what the staff has to say, it's lets hear the other side in a different way to make a truly balanced decision. I hope the next board can find a way to get that balance in their decision-making process."
This article has been corrected to reflect Thursday as the day of the school board's regular meeting.