by Dr. Larry Murray…….
Are your children safe in the Monroe County Schools? The School District, understandably, certainly wants parents to believe that.
According to a recent article in the Citizen, Michael Michaud, the District’s Security and Safety Coordinator, said that the main focus of maintenance activity over the summer was to make the schools safer. “The biggest two things we’ve been working on are perimeter fencing and getting all of the school cameras functioning.” Laudatory goals indeed, but how successful was the District in accomplishing those goals?
Michaud admitted that some of the older schools had cameras that were malfunctioning. His boss, Jeff Barrows, Director of Facilities and Construction, said that non-working cameras were in the process of being repaired or replaced and new ones have been added. When pressed to elaborate on which schools do or do not have new cameras, Barrow responded that “it’s not in the school district’s best interest to speak on where the weak spots are.” Why was Barrow unable to say that there are no weak spots in the District’s video surveillance system and to reassure everyone that all schools have video equipment that is fully functional? After all, the Maintenance Department had all summer to do the work.
What is Barrow telling us? What is a “weak spot”? Do your children attend a school that has one or more “weak spots”, that has insufficient or malfunctioning security cameras? More importantly, why is it not in the “best interest” of the School District to inform the public, parents in particular, as to which schools do and which schools do not have adequate video surveillance systems? Is it to keep that information from the “bad guys” or is it to protect the District from embarrassment?
Let me tell you what I learned.
As we all know, last May, a group of Key West High School students, purportedly seniors, trashed their soon to be alma mater. (The police were called, but none of the malefactors were prosecuted.) Punishment of any sort was minimal at best.
One of the punishments was for each student to write a letter of apology. To whom was not made clear. When I made a Public Records Request for copies of the apologies, my request was denied. The District claimed that federal student privacy laws prohibited the District from revealing the letters. Think about that response for a minute. In declining to make the letters public, who is protecting whom from what and for what reason?
Stymied, I tried another approach and I requested copies of the surveillance video from the night of the vandalism. I was told by Principal Amber Bosco that no video tapes existed. There was no video record.
When I pursued the matter at the District level, I was told that video tapes were “not available”. When I asked what “not available” meant, I was stonewalled, a common District practice when they do not want to answer a question or reveal information that could be embarrassing.
When I asked if “not available” meant that no tapes exited as Principal Bosco asserted, no answer was given. When I asked if “not available” meant that the tapes in question existed but were simply “not available” to Larry Murray, again no answer was given. An appeal to the State Attorney’s office for assistance was no more successful. It appeared that my only recourse was to spend $500 and go to court to compel production of videotapes that might or might not exist.
Before going to court, I thought that I might try a more informal approach. I again contacted Principal Bosco. She informed me that the absence of videotape of the vandalism was no fluke, that there was no attempt at a cover up. Rather, I was told that the video surveillance system at Key West High School had not been working when she became principal a few years earlier. Efforts at having the Maintenance Department repair or replace the cameras over the years routinely failed, not because the Maintenance department would not do the work but because the District would not fund it.
Before I go on, bear in mind that in the Citizen article, the Security and Safety Coordinator assured readers that newer schools such as Horace O’Bryant have up-to-date equipment, but some of the older schools had cameras that were malfunctioning. I ask you: Is Key West High School a “newer” or “older” school?
At that point, early August, I called Michael Michaud directly. The day I spoke to him he was at Stanley Switlik School repairing defective video equipment. I asked him about Key West High School. He said there were approximately 40 cameras on the campus. He had replaced 10 and was awaiting funding to do the rest.
After school started, I emailed Principal Bosco, asking if the funding was approved. She ignored repeated informal requests. I then sent a formal Public Records Request to Principal Bosco and that, too, was ignored. Again I appealed to the State Attorney’s office and had no more success.
I next turned to the District and formally, with a Public Records Request, asked for the August maintenance records regarding replacement or repair of video surveillance equipment at Key West High School. My request was limited exclusively to the video surveillance equipment.
The response of the District, after a few reminders, was that they did not have to produce the records because of the subject matter, school security. The District could give me the records, but they were not going to do so. My reaction was to suggest that the District was hiding something and I suspect that the Citizen article is a reaction to that other than subtle suggestion of keeping the public in the dark (pun intended) regarding video surveillance systems in the schools.
Board member Ed Davidson has told me that he raised the subject of video surveillance equipment in the schools with Pat Lefere, Executive Director of Operations and Planning, at a Board meeting in the spring. Mr. Lefere, according to Davidson, assured him that surveillance systems in all of the schools were functioning properly. Obviously, at least at KWHS, that was not true. What of the other 10 schools? Why was Michaud replacing cameras at Stanley Switlik School and Key West High School in August if everything was working fine in the spring?
So, I ask you again, what did Jeff Barrows mean when he said that “It’s not in the school district’s best interest to speak on where the weak spots are”? What is a “weak spot” in the video surveillance system? Why do they exist? Why is not every video surveillance system fully functional at every school?
If I had a child in the MCSD, I would ask my principal if the school that my child attends has any “weak spots”. And, if so, what is going to be done about it?