Despite a late effort by some members to delay a vote on video surveillance inside its high schools, the Fairfax County School Board moved forward with the policy at its Thursday meeting, calling it another tool to deter theft and bullying and help schools make better use of its resources.
The policy, which passed 8-4, was by the Fairfax County High School Principals Association and the schools’ Department of Facilities and Transportation Services, who said the program could help administrators curb disciplinary issues like food fights, physical altercations or drug dealing. The policy will allow cameras to be installed in "hot spots" like cafeterias and lobbies on a school by school basis.
"This leaves [the decision] up to them," Elizabeth Bradsher (Springfield) said. "That's all this policy is asking. We're trying to do this policy for the sake of the community. [They have] the discretion to use these cameras or not. We're ... not saying you have to use them."
Stu Gibson (Hunter Mill), Sandy Evans (Mason), Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon) and Tina Hone (At-large) voted against it.
The most recent version of the policy would require principals to submit documents to prove the program is supported in their communities, saying they must submit data and documents to the superintendent detailing the number and types of meetings, the "sufficiency of time provided for engagement," responses received, methods of communication and a specific plan for camera installation.
It also tasks Superintendent Jack Dale with creating an approval process for that data and making sure schools file annual reports detailing how its system is performing.
Bradsher made a motion to approve the program, but Storck countered it with an amendment to delay decision to no later than April 26. The amendment would have directed Dale to use the extra time to prepare a report summarizing the pros, cons, costs, benefits, and alternatives available. He asked the report be prepared in advance of at least two public dialogue meetings held in February or March 2012 to gather community feedback on the proposed revisions directly.
“[This has] not been the kind of process that we’d all recognize as true engagement,” Storck said. “There was no information ahead of time about the pros, cons, costs, benefits … There was not enough information from the other point of view.”
Storck said the board should not make such a “major change” without full vetting of the public and community. A delay "gives us the time to get it right" whatever the decision may be, he said.
"Before we go any farther, the public needs to be clear on what exactly is involved … and what they give up," Evans said.
The amendment failed 9 to 3, with only Evans and Hone voting to support Storck.
Over the course of the past few months, several meetings and work sessions revealed . At a November work session, saying it varied widely amongst schools and didn't reach enough parents or students. Opponents of the plan said the issue should have more buy-in and a more streamlined approach.
At Thursday's meeting, several residents again echoed those concerns. Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform's Michele Menapace told the board she is not confident the board has had enough solid data or time to review it.
"In the past three months, estimated costs have changed at least twice ... the source of funds have changed four times," Menapace said.
Principals have argued the cameras could save money by deterring theft, but some community members disagree: Menapace said in an email to board members that reported thefts over two calendar years totaled $40,000 — "one-fifth the total cost to install cameras just in cafeterias."
Data from Fairfax County Public Schools about theft totals was not readily available.
Though the school has quoted figures for installation and devices, largely paid for with proffer funds and bond issues that already exist, "at the end of the warranty period, ongoing maintenance and repair costs will increase based upon the number of cameras," staff wrote in an analysis of issues presented at Thursday's meeting.
Brad Center (Lee) said costs depend largely on which schools decide to implement the program; several communities have already said they don't want it.
Menapace also said principals can already request additional means of surveillance in their schools under existing policy, on a smaller scale and with more attention to whether principals have data to support the need, and if there is, can monitor its success.
But Bradsher, who has been a staunch advocate for the cameras, said they're not just for theft, but also about safety.
"This is about issues in the hallway ... in the cafeteria that were pretty bad that were so bad it tramautized students in several schools," Bradsher said.
Others, like Jim Raney (at-large), said while programs like Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) are effective, they dont provide the "hard facts" surveillance can provide in the event of a theft or other incident.
Brad Center (Lee) called cameras, like PBIS, "another tool in the toolbox" for principals to use at the community's discretion, not "a panacea for other issues."
According to staff analysis included at Thursday's meeting, the school system has received comments from a number of school systems — including New York City; Prince William County, Virginia; Orange County, Florida; and Colorado Springs, Colorado — about their surveillance system's success. Bradsher said she spoke to the police chief in Arlington County, who also believes in the program's success.
But the board has not found any empirical data or studies to support that claim, a statement several opposing school board members echoed Thursday night. In their policy revisions, staff has struggled to come up with ways to define the program's success once it is in place, they said.
"It has been difficult to identify truly meaningful indicators that will inform the board on the successor failure of the program," staff wrote in their analysis.
"None of these systems have come to us with data saying this program works," Evans said. "This may give us a false sense of security."
But most other members said they were comfortable with the amount of data they had. Center said the policy ensures schools still have to go through a measured process to get cameras in the schools.
Both Center and Wilson said they've seen widespread support for the policy in their districts.
Evans said she was also concerned there was no clear way for the community to revisit whether they wanted camera in the schools after they are installed.
"Once we put it in there it's not going to come out. It just isn't," Evans said.
Hone said she believes the board "inappropriately allowed our staff to use our communications infrastructure to send out information that biased the information and the outcome."
"I urge the new board to try to develop a new kind of process so no decision is brought forward unless real objective data with citations are brought forward that shows both side of the story," said Hone, who will step down from the board Dec. 31 along with five other members. "Just because somebody called it a best practice doesn't mean it's a best practice."