Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Brunswick Democratic Party concerned with school district’s projected $1M security system

Brunswick County Schools is using funds from the 2016 bond to update its security software in schools, but some members from the Brunswick County Democratic Party are taking issue with it. (Courtesy photo)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Cost, efficacy, and insufficient detail are among concerns voiced by the Brunswick County Democratic Party regarding Brunswick County school district’s security upgrades. 

READ MORE: Brunswick County schools district plans for over $1M in security improvements

“One million dollars seems like a huge amount of money to invest in this unproven technology,” Shelley Allen, the Brunswick County Democratic Party chair, said to commissioners at its March meeting.

She was referring to a planned upgrade of cameras and servers in all 20 Brunswick County schools and urged the board of commissioners to further investigate. 

Last month, the district signed off on replacing its 15-year-old software with a security system called Milestone, which utilizes learning algorithms and video analytics.

Allen told PCD the party’s concerns with the system were centered around the costs, overall effectiveness of the new system, and invasion of privacy from its facial, vehicle, and license-plate recognition features.

Commissioners from the March 18 meeting were caught off guard when Allen and BCDP member Dale Todd spoke out during public comment. 

Commissioners told Allen the item was not on their agenda, despite the district telling PCD last month the proposal would be sent to them per its use of funding from the 2016 Bond Fund. The bond was for $152 million to cover construction of new school facilities and renovations of existing classrooms, including technology and security upgrades. 

Brunswick County Schools spokesperson Gordon Burnette said upon further review it realized the contract only required approval from the district’s board of education because it is under general obligation use of fund dollars. Construction projects that use fund dollars require commissioner approval. 

“There are a lot of transparency concerns about their decision-making process,” Allen told PCD Monday.

Her fellow BCDP member, Todd, had questions about the technology, also presented to commissioners March 18.

“Why we’re using these technologies, how we’re going to install them, what we’re trying to solve, and most importantly, how we’re going to operate them, and what’s the policy for use?” Todd asked. 

According to Burnette, security cameras have been in place and “normal practice” of the district for more than 15 years.

“We have never heard complaints of these suggested issues,” he wrote in an email to PCD. “Most recently, no concerns were made by students or staff at the COAST as we used this campus as our pilot test.” 

Crime stats, according to the North Carolina Public Instruction’s annual crime report, in Brunswick County Schools have oscillated over the last decade; 2013 consisted of 60 instances, which grew to 87 in 2014 — an increase of 45%. 

It dropped by 56% in 2015 and from there 36% by 2016, where it remained steady for the next two years. Three years thereafter it dipped, with 0 crime instances accounted for in 2020 due to the pandemic. In 2021, as students re-entered classrooms, the district had 10 instances of crimes, which jumped up 630% to 73 by 2022.

2023’s numbers doubled from 10 years ago to 124 instances:

  • Six instances of assault resulting in serious injury
  • 11 instances of assault on school personnel
  • One bomb threat/hoax
  • Eight instances of possession of an alcoholic beverage
  • 65 instances of possession of a controlled substances
  • Eight instances of possession of a weapon
  • Five sexual offenses

“Smart camera technology can be utilized in a way to allow our camera systems to be used in a proactive way to secure our campuses,” Burnette said. 

Representatives from Brunswick County schools informed Port City Daily this week the upcoming new cameras and servers will feature enhanced zoom capabilities and increased storage capacity. Additionally, it will include perimeter defense, object analytics, motion detection, and the capability to directly alert administration in the event of a security breach.

During the February operations committee meeting, Debra Bair, the district’s director of technology, informed committee members about more advanced capabilities of the new system, including facial, vehicle, and license-plate recognition, and weapon detection. 

Allen referenced a study done by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in October of 2023 that suggests analytical surveillance and security methods may have adverse effects on student safety. The study details how sophisticated surveillance and security methods can be harmful to students by undermining their privacy, eroding students’ trust in teachers, school staff, and administrators, inhibiting students’ ability to engage in self-help, and increasing student fear.

The BCDP also mentioned a potential disadvantage the system can have on students of color by contributing to discriminatory disciplinary rules and procedures. According to the ACLU study, actions and speech patterns from students of color “are wrongly perceived as problematic by those unfamiliar with the community.”

“The proposed new system cannot search video footage or identify students based on income, race, or sex, nor would we ever categorize our students by these suggested metrics for any reason when dealing with security measures,” Burnette said. 

He clarified the current upgrades to the system will not include facial recognition services either. 

Although, board member and chairman Steven Barger stated to WECT on March 1 facial recognition “could be added later.”

Burnette emphasized the security system does not have a negative impact on the learning environment or development of Brunswick County students. 

A pilot program took place at the Center of Applied Sciences and Technology (COAST) high school to include a demo version of the upgrade and has been installed since November of 2023.

The cost of the project is broken down in phases; phase one includes adding new systems and servers in all schools, while phase two will involve the purchase and installation of new cameras.

Phase one is divided by 20 schools and “does not add up to a large sum for phase one per campus,” Burnette said — starting at least $38,000 for each campus.  

Contracted to physical security solutions and IT services companies, A3 Communications and Cambridge Computer Services, phase one’s total cost estimated at $764,000.

Bair told Port City Daily phase two could cost around $500,000 — creating a $1 million estimate. 

“We know that the cost to outfit a high school with these technology upgrades will be more than for an elementary school,” Burnette detailed. “High schools possess more cameras and wireless locks, so their portion of the total project funding would be higher.” 

The initial phases of the plan were approved by the district’s operations committee during the February meeting.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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