A new security system for Oakland schools

view from a security camera at Oakland's Fremont High in 2002The Oakland public school system is about to embark on a new initiative with a new acronym: SOS, which stands for “Secure Our Schools.”

The district plans to install 750-plus cameras at 26 middle and high schools between now and the end of the 2010-11 school year, using a $1.5 million Department of Justice grant.

It’s hoped that the infusion of technology — and the ability for school police to monitor the happenings on every campus from one location — will keep a lid on a number of the district’s chronic ills, including truancy, neighborhood crime, on-campus fights.

If you have a flexible work schedule and want to see a demonstration of this new system, maybe I’ll see you at the Oakland Technical High School library at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

Here’s an excerpt of the district’s news release that lists the potential benefits:

* Reduce violence on school campuses and in surrounding neighborhoods

* Improve student attitudes relating to safety at school

* Boost student attendance (by diminishing fear of unruly students)

* Increase student achievement (as a result of fewer distractions, fewer behavioral problems and more regular attendance)

* Enhance levels of communication, problem solving and cooperation between OUSD and OPD and OUSD, OPD and the Oakland community at-large

* Serve as the catalyst for more technology-enabled, data-driven and people-sensitive crime prevention programs in Oakland and throughout the country

Security cameras have been in use for years; the above photo was taken at Fremont High School in 2002, in fact, and the caption said the school had just installed 32 cameras. How effective have such efforts been in the past?

In what ways do you think — or hope — the SOS system will improve the safety and security of Oakland students and staff? What are its limitations?

Tribune file photo of Fremont High School in 2002/Sean Connelley

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Union Supporter-But


    Where is the data to support these claims? Honestly, communication from the schools, released to the school attendees and their parents either before, or just after something happens is the biggest deterrent. We see it in other school districts that have lower incidences of outside violence against students.

    The Richmond rape, the El Cerrito middle school attack – these are examples of schools with technological surveillance systems that didn’t keep students safer.

    What I would like to see from Tony Smith and the district is a COMPREHENSIVE security AND COMMUNICATION plan – just like those in functioning school districts. What a functioning communication plan looks like is notification by email within hours (not days or weeks) of notification of a threat or possible threat. In the case of the Richmond Rape, the school personnel standing at the doors of the school auditorium should have been walking the grounds. In the case of the El Cerrito Middle School, the reports that the girl made about the harassing boy should have been taken seriously, a notification should have been made to all families via email that students who feel threatened should seek help and help should be given. And in our own district’s case, notification should have been made to all families in the school the day it was confirmed that the girl was attacked.

    We do not want a district communication plan, because if we had one, we would be legally, ethically and morally responsible for implementing the plan. It is easier to say we have technology and the technology was not pointed to the attack in the stairwell, or near the tables and benches. It is much, much harder to stand up and say “Our district, security measures and school community failed to protect our student. This is how we failed: XXXX, these are the measures we have put in place: XXXXX and we notified the school community within two hours of the incident. Further information to follow.” But we have stated that our priority is to sweep it under the rug, hide it in the closet, meet with our attorneys, our PR staff and our school administration to make sure that no one says anything that was not pre-approved. In other words, we want to protect the adults rather than the students.

    Then, when the technology does not record the crime, or the video is too blurry to read we can say the technology failed, not the adults.

  • Katy Murphy

    Thank you for raising those points. I’ll keep them in mind tomorrow during the news conference. As of now, I have few details about the system and why those behind it are optimistic about its effectiveness.

  • ex oakland staff

    Video surveillance was effective at my site where the feeds from all the cameras were monitored all day by an SSO who was familiar with that campus and that student body. I have a concern about how effective the surveillance will be if it is monitored from a downtown location. When the surveillance is recorded and monitored on-site, the video data can be easily accessed by on-site staff, resulting in quick response time. When I was teaching in OUSD, there were two incidents in hallway outside my classroom, (one theft, one involving pepper spray) in which I was able to go and look at the video immediately after the event with an SSO. Because the SSO was familiar with the students on campus they were able to identify the miscreant and call them in immediately.

  • Gordon Danning

    Talk about “Brave New World.” Way too Big-Brothery for my taste. But no one cares about student rights, even in the “liberal” Bay Area.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Gordon – I do care about student’s rights. I do not believe that video surveillance is the answer. I do believe the answer lies in humans monitoring, communicating and demonstrating helpful, ethical behavior. In the worst situations we have seen in ours and other districts – AND the ways other school districts who have mastered monitoring, communicating and demonstrating the behavior they want and expect we KNOW what is required. We know we must QUICKLY and EFFICIENTLY communicate dangers to students and families and we must reward the behavior we wish to see with additional trust and support for that behavior.

    It appears to me that we are creating an atmosphere of distrust and prison-like behaviors where we want to show that we can witness the bad behavior then punish it. In functioning school districts – like when Lafayette had a man on the trail trying to kidnap middle school girls – a phone tree was implemented, emails went out within the hour and every student had a backpack notice. In Oakland, we would convene a meeting, discuss the issue, talk to our attorney, make sure everyone feels comfortable with the outcome, discuss responsibility, get a consensus and wait for something to happen to one of our children so we could capture the criminal and have a headline in the paper.

  • Nextset

    What’s fun to watch here is the result of throwing deportment and discipline out the window.

    Of course your OUSD schools are beginning to look and feel like prisons. They are. It’s just the suckers that don’t get it yet.

    The students are there not because they aspire to anything (like getting in and staying in) but because they are assigned to go and are forced to go. The level of deportment is ghetto – at least ghetto dress, language and mores are all accepted and tolerated. And actually doing anything academic is a distant target to political correctness and fantasy. Less “work” more “play” – or play learning anyway. Reading and writing are beside the point as well as having to do anything else they hate. Comfort and pacification is what OUSD is all about.

    So they put up the video cameras.

    Watch how many cameras go up in Piedmont High. And believe me they would go up in an instant if it were really useful for safety. Piedmont places a very high value on it’s children and it’s property. See if they ever lay off any cops.

    These cameras are mainly about watching the inmates congregate and stab each other – so to speak.

    IT DOES LOOK LIKE A PRISON – Because it is one.

    OUSD needs to create a strictly academic campus with elitist screening so every OUSD student can aspire to go to a good school. Bet they won’t need cameras.

    Brave New World!

  • Gordon Danning

    Union-Supporter, But:

    You make a good point. I had a student tell me the other week, “Mr. Danning, you’re my favorite teacher.” I asked how that is possible, since the student has never been in my class. She said, “Because you are so welcoming.” So, what does that mean? I actually am not even remotely welcoming in the literal sense. All I do is let students hang out in my class before school and at lunch, and I dont hassle them. In the 14 or so years I have been doing that, nothing has ever been stolen from my room, not is there graffiti or vandalism. If students are treated with respect, they tend to respond with respect. If students are treated as potential criminals, they are likely to be resentful, and act accordingly.

  • harlemmoon

    For the students who DO go to school with every intent to learn, these cameras are a welcome addition.
    Rest assured that while the thuggery that inhabits many a school isn’t exactly quaking in his Timberlands over the installation of these cameras, the students who are routinely hassled or worse are applauding.
    Now, the administration can potentially witness – and act on – the near-daily assaults/abuse that well-intended children suffer daily at the hands of those who only come to school to raise hell and, well, maybe get some breakfast.

  • Gordon Danning


    I don’t know how you can be so sure what students think. When we were considering security cameras a few years ago, I polled my students, and a majority were opposed.

    And, can someone explain the point of having the cameras monitored downtown, as opposed to at the school site?

  • Katy Murphy

    They would be monitored in both places, actually. Each school would monitor its own cameras, as many do now, and certain people downtown (and Oakland police) would have access to security footage at every school.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Katy: Did they answer the questions about a communication plan when they can see the incident on camera? How are we going to alert the school communities before the perpetrator is caught?

  • Katy Murphy

    They actually canceled the news conference because of the nearby Walgreens robbery/CHP shooting earlier in the morning, so no one from the police department was there to answer any questions. I’ll ask the police chief when I meet with him on Friday.

  • Nextset

    Gordon Danning: Students are for the most part not qualified to have an opinion on such things as security and legal matters. I wonder what the faculty thought on the cameras? There opinions mean something, students opinions do not.

    A teen thinks “I want” and “Fair” (meaning “I Want”). They don’t pay bills, the financial ones or any other kind. Their opinions of courses of action are worth hearing only as an exercise which they are supposed to fail. When they start getting it right they’re not teens anymore.

    I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for OUSD to have the cameras although it may be. I am saying that the unsafe and bad manner in which OUSD approaches secondary education produces convict/inmate/prison style behavior complete with gangs (gangs are a substitute authority filling a void). OUSD here is trying to treat the behavior – behavior they have instigated and won’t admit doing so.

    It makes as much sense as trying to combat the drug trade with more enforcement on the dealers (utterly futile). Drug trade is promoted by government with numerous systems that protect the users and allow them to keep using (free health care, welfare, unemployment insurance paid with printing press money, anti discrimination laws, non-public rap sheets etc).

    First we create rotten schools, squandering the treasury in doing so, then when the inmates at the school behave as you would expect them to in such a non-value school, you spend another fortune on cameras and security on the students in a vain attempt to stop the behavior the system engenders.

    Any good family can take one look at the camera system and move to Boise – or Piedmont. Just move somewhere else.

    You see, kids act out at these bad schools because they know it’s a bad school and they don’t value anything about it. It’s not as if they had to earn the right to be there. And THAT is the problem. We need a set of schools within OUSD that kids and their families beg to be allowed to continue attending, semester to semester, competitive schools, exclusive schools.

    How are things going at SF Unified’s Lowell High anyway? They putting up any cameras in the interior to watch the enrolled students?

  • Union Supporter-But

    The communication plan should not be from the police department it should come from the principal of the school from which the deed happened. This is how it is done in functioning school districts such as Piedmont, Lafayette, Orinda, San Ramon Valley and Castro Valley. How will a police office have access to the phone numbers and email addresses of the families in the school?

  • Katy Murphy

    I understand your point; I just might have misunderstood your question. I thought you were asking about a district-wide communications/safety policy for schools, which I can discuss with the school district police chief and OUSD’s chief services officer on Friday.

  • Gordon Danning

    Hey, all:

    I just looked up “self-parody” in the dictionary, and there’s a picture of Nextset. Go figure!

  • Gordon Danning

    Small Town Kid said (in a post that seems to have been put in the wrong place): “Gordon:
    Nextset is right on this – students are absolutely not qualified to have an opinion on security cameras in school. This is something that needs to be dealt with at the schoolboard/administration/faculty/adult level.
    There are definitely other school districts that use them…”

    I find that odd, because the State of California expects high school students to be able to, among other things, “evaluate and take and defend positions on the scope and limits of rights and obligations as democratic citizens, the relationships among them, and how they are secured,” “distinguish valid arguments from fallacious arguments in historical interpretations,” “evaluate major debates among historians concerning alternative interpretations of the past, including an analysis of authors’ use of evidence and the distinctions between sound generalizations and misleading oversimplifications,” “construct and test hypotheses; collect, evaluate, and employ information from multiple primary and secondary sources; and apply it in oral and written presentations,” and “conduct cost/benefit analyses and apply basic economic indicators to analyze the aggregate economic behavior of the U.S. economy.”

    Yet, they are “absolutely not qualified” to have an opinion on security cameras in schools? Again, that seems very, very odd.

    What is even odder is that, when Harlemmoon cited student opinion to SUPPORT the use of cameras, no one jumped in to say that students are not qualified to give an opinion. What a strange world we live in.

  • harlemmoon04

    Gordon anybody with a poll and an agenda can spin the result as he wishes. Surely you know that, since you appear to have all the answers here.

    I happen to “know” that many students will feel more comfortable with cameras because they’ve said as much to me. No polling, no spin. Just straight responses.

  • Union Supporter-But

    I polled a group of students this morning – some students were strong academically and some weaker academically. The question was this: If you have a choice between the three following items what would be your first choice, second choice and third choice. Our goal is to increase security for all students. 1. Security cameras throughout the school grounds including the stairwells and corridors, 2. Teachers and other school personnel in the hallways talking to students and watching what is going on, 3. Everything the same as it is now.

    Results 2, 1, 3. The students wanted to talk to and be seen by adults. Students wanted to feel safe but didn’t feel like the security cameras would do anything. Since it is the students and student behavior we are monitoring and attempting to influence it would seem that they would know what and how student behavior would be affected by our decisions.

    What students seem to want is a school environment that is safe – physically and emotionally. If I told you I was going to keep a camera on you all day at work how would you feel, safer? My guess is no, you would not feel safer, but harassed.

  • Nextset

    The cameras may make students feel safer. That’s positive. But: They feel endangered because the school is an unsafe school, perhaps filled with unsafe people who they correctly appraise as not being controlled.

    The school’s fault. And changable.

    Gordon Danning: I suppose you actually that believe what the State Of California piously pronounces is real? All the time, for everybody?? This reminds me of our previous debate over Children leaving the school grounds during class and participating in street demonstrations without their parents. I said that should not happen, my critics took the position that the Chillun have all these “rights” and should go out and try them out. I seem to remember some dumb kid getting maced ot tasered by the cops, etc….

    Children have increased responsibility and liability and unfortunately someone lowered the age of majority to 18 from 21 so adolescents can now get themselves in terminal trouble. Many people require 21 or more years to grow up, especially with a 2 digit IQ.

    So no, teens don’t get taken seriously in decisions with long term or permanent consequences. Not if you like your kid and want them to survive and prosper.

    You can pretend to let them make critical decisions. I don’t play. I’d talk about their feelings and perceptions, agree and disagree and encourage to get other opinions. But teens don’t call the shots.

    I’d be likely to limit or restrict their being out 1am (as a rule). Same reasons.

  • harlemmoon04

    My choice would be to have an adult present during passing of classes, before and after school and during lunch. But, c’mon Union, how likely is that going to happen? And, please, don’t tell me it’s the norm at OUSD.

    If schools truly were being patrolled by these organic, nurturing and ever-present teacher/body guards, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    The responses to cameras are mixed. Sure. No surprise there. But OUSD gets a thumbs up for willing to try something, anything – rather than just waiting for this army of teachers to magically appear and dutifully patrol the school rooms/halls (and not ask for more money because it isn’t part of their job description).

  • Gordon Danning

    I polled all my students today. I have 2 sections of 10th grade AP World History and 3 sections of 12th grade American Government, so they are not representative of the school as a whole, or of OUSD. But, given that they are AP students and seniors who have not dropped out and who attend class, they might be fairly representative of serious students.

    The results were: 57 percent opposed and 43 percent in favor, with a 95% confidence interval and margin of error of plus or minus 10.12 percent (as calculated here: http://faculty.vassar.edu/lowry/polls/calcs.html#ca4).

    And, yes, as Harlemmoon puts it, “anybody with a poll and an agenda can spin the result as he wishes,” but fortunately I was raised better than that.

  • ex oakland staff

    re: Nextset: The students are there not because they aspire to anything (like getting in and staying in) but because they are assigned to go and are forced to go.

    Careless writing, over generalized and innaccurate. From my personal experience with my own children and my past students this is true for some but certainly not all OUSD students.

  • concerned parent

    Funny, we were told by our principal, Russom Mesfun that the installation of security cameras in OUSD was against district policy. We had raised money for a security system. When we wrote the OUSD General Counsel Jacquelie Minor to get confirmation we received no answer. We felt that the pros outweighed the cons on this–eg. to reinforce what teachers and others saw and to document any problems in case it became a “she said, he said” situation.