Deputies now have live access to school surveillance

Students in 10 Washington state school districts recently returned to school with heightened, high-tech security: thousands of surveillance cameras that can now be instantly accessed by local law enforcement.

One of those districts allowing real-time access is the Freeman School District, in the town of Rockford, where a freshman student suddenly opened fire on Sept. 13, 2017, killing one classmate and injuring three others.

Randy Russell, Ph.D., is the Freeman School District superintendent and his office is just across the street from where the fatal shooting occurred.  “We literally were locked down within seconds,” he recently told KIRO 7.

According to the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, recent polls show that a majority of teenagers fear a school shooting - like the one at Freeman - and that at least 200,000 students across the country have experienced gun violence in school since 1999.

“We know that kids, when they feel safe, they learn better,” Russell said days before the new 2019/2020 school year started.  “I don’t think there’s any student that wants to go to an unsafe school.”

Which is why, when the Spokane County Sheriff's Department asked if the Freeman School District would allow its hundreds of surveillance cameras to be instantly accessed by law enforcement employees in emergency situations, Russell and the district agreed.

“The agreement allows the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department to have real-time access to the surveillance equipment to assist in dealing with whatever kind of incident you might have” Russell explained.

The surveillance cameras will be accessed on monitors in a Spokane County Sheriff’s Department office known as “RIG 9” – for Regional Intelligence Group.  But Undersheriff Dave Ellis told KIRO 7 the school surveillance camera feeds cannot be recorded by deputies, or reviewed at a later time.  He explained the cameras will only be accessed, in real-time, in emergency situations - such as an active shooter - “to identify how many suspects there are, what those suspects are wearing, where they’re located, and then also if we have any victims that need medical attention.”

According to the undersheriff, 10 districts in Spokane County are now allowing the Sheriff's Office to access their surveillance cameras, which are not located in restrooms, locker rooms or classrooms.

“The Sheriff’s Office respects privacy of students and staff,” Ellis said.  “This is a tool used purely to enhance the safety of those students, those staff and our first responders.”

According to the Memorandum of Understanding between the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and the school districts, the cameras will only be accessed for testing and training with 24-hours-notice, and in emergencies.  The agreement defines “emergency situation” “as a situation that poses an imminent threat to the life, safety, health, or property of the District, its students, its staff, and other occupants of District Facilities…”

For Kendrick Washington, that description is not clear enough. “Perhaps the most important question is, what constitutes an emergency?”

As Youth Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle, Washington isn't convinced allowing law enforcement real-time access to school cameras is a good idea or will even increase safety.  “Is this actually an effective tool?  There really isn’t much out there that shows adding more cameras into schools makes kids safer,” Washington told KIRO 7.  “What does make schools safer are investments in those schools; investments in counselors, investments in therapists, investments in nurses.”

“These are things that actually have a proven track record of making kids safe,” Washington said.

Another concern voiced by the ACLU’s Washington chapter is that the cameras will be used to turn school discipline issues – such as fights between students – into criminal justice issues.  “The more you involve police in schools, the bigger the opportunity is to criminalize a child’s behavior” he said.

Russell and Ellis believe the surveillance camera partnership is simply a better way for the district and Sheriff’s Office to work together.  However, when asked by KIRO 7, both admitted that having immediate access to school cameras most likely would not have prevented the deadly 2017 shooting at Freeman High.

“It happened almost instantaneously,” Ellis explained.  “Where it would have helped us is in the aftermath where you still have lots of confusion and you’re trying to identify, are there more victims?  Is there another shooter that we don’t know about?”

Russell said the district’s new agreement with the Sheriff's Office is overwhelmingly supported by the people of Rockford, and he's willing to try whatever it takes to keep his students safe.

“When you’ve been through a situation like we have, it certainly changes your perspective on things” Russell said.  “I would just encourage people to keep an open mind.”

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