Our children at risk: Security cameras at public schools broken for months

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by Scott Noll / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on February 6, 2013 at 12:15 PM

HOUSTON -- Houston Independent School District leaders proclaim safety and security are top priorities. It’s a message the district echoed to nervous parents following the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn. in December.

But the KHOU 11 News I-Team uncovered ongoing problems with what some call the district’s first line of defense at HISD’s nearly 300 schools.

The problems center around more than 12,000 security cameras spread across the district.

They cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

So some parents want to know why those vital pieces of the district’s security plan are allowed to sit broken for days, months, or even a year.

Amanda Moreno, mother of a first grader at Anderson Elementary, admits she was comforted by the security cameras outside her son’s school building.

“When I came to visit I was like, okay, it’s awesome to know that they have a camera there,” Moreno told the I-Team.

It’s a feeling reinforced over the years by images of criminals caught on school security cameras.

But the 11 News I-Team found that may be a false sense of security.

HISD repair records show the camera outside the main entry of Anderson Elementary went down in July of 2011.

Records show the camera wasn’t repaired for more than a year. In fact, according to work orders, it took 411 days and repeated visits from repairmen before the camera was fixed in August of 2012.

The news was shocking to parents.

“My heart's beating really fast,” said Laronia Reed, the mother of a three Anderson students. “I'm holding back the tears. That's scary.”

"You drop off your kids every single day hoping they're okay, and then to see that, it's scary to know that anything could happen,” said Moreno.

Records from more than 11,000 camera repairs show delays are an ongoing problem district wide.

That includes 362 days to fix a camera at West Briar Middle School and 236 days to repair a broken camera at Wheatley High.

At Osborne Elementary School records show all cameras on the school’s campus were down for 77 straight days in 2011.

“Why have them up there if they ain’t working?” asked Tito Llamas whose granddaughter goes to Osborne.

“They need the cameras working,” said Peggy Humphrey, the mother of an Osborne kindergartener. “Seventy-seven days is not, there shouldn’t be any excuse for that.”

In fact, HISD’s own policy states that emergency repairs, like at Osborne, and must be permanently fixed within five days.

However, the I-Team found that during the last two years, 50 percent of emergency camera repairs took 11 or more days to fix.

The district’s policy says urgent repairs, like the camera at Anderson Elementary, are supposed to be done within 10 days.

However, district records show that in half of urgent cases, it took HISD 20 or more days -- double the district’s policy -- to fix the cameras.

Pat Murphy is a former police officer who now runs LPT Security Consulting.

Murphy reviewed the I-Team’s findings.

“If you have it, it must work,” Murphy said when asked about security cameras.

He calls the school’s response to broken cameras unacceptable.

“To have a camera down that long or have an entire school down for that long would be unconscionable,” said Murphy who says the problem puts the lives of students, teachers and parents at risk.

“Security cameras are a vital part of our campus security,” said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer.

Spencer defends the numbers.

“We feel like we have a pretty good track record of keeping those cameras up and running,” Spencer said.

Spencer says HISD only has two employees responsible for fixing the 12,000 security cameras district wide.

Contractors handle complex repairs and provide help with backlogged repairs.

“We would love to have more staff to fix those cameras,” said Spencer. “We’re in an era of significant state budget cutting.”

But the I-Team asked Spencer if administrators had ever asked school board members for more money to hire workers to make repairs.

“I’m not aware,” replied Spencer.

He insists that broken cameras don’t mean schools are unsafe.

“We prosecuted crimes before cameras existed, we prosecuted crimes before any of our schools had video cameras,” said Spencer.

He says at a given time 96 percent of HISD’s security cameras functioning.

If true, that still leaves more than 400 cameras broken, and leaves plenty of students’ families concerned.

“Listen, these children are defenseless,” said L’ Erica Jackson as she picked her brother up from Osborne Elementary. “We need this. We need to have this stuff updated.”

HISD admits most of the time no one is actively monitoring video feeds from the schools.

Spencer said that would be impractical.

Instead, he says recordings are frequently reviewed after an incident occurs and the district needs to see who’s responsible.

But security expert, Murphy calls that a big mistake, effectively eliminating monitoring that could spot problems and allow schools to lock-down sooner in a crisis.

“That says that they have a very narrow view of the purpose of the cameras,” said Murphy. “If they’re using those cameras only to catch people after the act has already been committed, then they’re missing the most critical use of the camera and that is to detect issues before they occur or as they are occurring.”

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