A security officer monitors students as they transition between classes during the first day of school at South Philadelphia High School Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Philadelphia. About 190,000 students are going back to class Monday in Philadelphia, where parents say severe staffing cuts have created an aura of uncertainty around the new academic year. Officials contend the school district is prepared despite the major budget reductions.
Avi Wolfman-Arent joined WHYY in December 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the Chronicle of Philanthropy and education technology for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Avi first took a shine to radio at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He earned his undergraduate degree at Haverford College and grew up in the D.C. area. Despite the latter he’s a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, devoting an unhealthy portion of his conscious thought to the Sixers, Phillies, and Eagles. He lives in South Philadelphia.
(Undated) — A license-plate reader. Bullet-proof vests. Yoga lessons. And lots of security cameras.
Those items may sound disparate, but they’re unified by a single stream of money.
A year ago, Pennsylvania earmarked $40 million in competitive grants for school districts to make safety and security upgrades in the wake of school shootings in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas.
Through a Right-to-Know request, Keystone Crossroads obtained summaries of what 231 districts, charter schools and technical schools plan to purchase with this unprecedented pot of money. The summaries provide rare insight into how school districts have adjusted priorities post-Parkland. And they shed light on how the modern, fortified school building looks and feels.
Several experts say these summaries reflect the kind of requests made by districts across the country. In the months after the 2018 school shootings, states devoted nearly a billion dollars to new security funding, according to one news outlet.
These changes are intended to protect schools against the deadly rampages that have shaken many school communities across the country. But they’re also likely to shift how schools monitor students, dole out discipline, and treat mental illness.
While much of the post-Parkland conversation has centered on headline-grabbing approaches to school safety — such as arming teachers or scanning social media for threats — these documents show that lots of districts are doubling down on ideas that have been around for decades.
For a complete list of school districts and summaries, check out the PDF documents below.
Lots of security cameras
One clear theme emerged from the summaries: Pennsylvania schools are being monitored by more, and higher quality, video cameras.
Among the 231 grant recipients, Keystone Crossroads found 104 who planned to spend money on replacing or installing video surveillance.
Take South Western School District in York County, which told the state it would install “80 high resolution, state of the art, security cameras” at its high school.
“It is the district’s belief this investment creates a secure environment promoting student learning,” administrators wrote in their grant application. “Students and visitors will have a visual reminder that the district is aware of their presence and we are monitoring all public areas for activity that may compromise student safety.”
Although the ostensible purpose of these cameras is to guard against the worst, they’re also changing the culture of schools.
Some administrators believe cameras can improve student discipline. One school district — Tri-Valley in Schuylkill County — noted that its cameras would be useful for “live tracking of ‘persons of interest’ in incidents of personal student conflict.”
“The students know they’re being recorded,” said Gerald Witmer Jr., who heads the Reading Muhlenberg Career and Technology Center in Berks County. “They know they’re gonna be accountable. They know the story they give better match what the video shows.”
Witmer’s school requested 15 new cameras, bringing the school’s total to about 90, he said. And the boost in cameras has corresponded with a drop in fights and other disruptions, Witmer believes.
“It really has helped to maintain a peaceful environment and eliminate a lot of the things we used to have to deal with,” he said.
Some critics, though, say the anecdotes don’t match the evidence.
Chad Marlow, Senior Advocacy and Policy Counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says the expansion of school video cameras is “almost Orwellian.”
Although there’s been little academic research on video surveillance in schools, he says, there is extensive research on surveillance in general society. Marlow says it doesn’t deter crime, and in schools can undermine students’ trust.
“I don’t think the schools of Pennsylvania are going to turn into a totalitarian state,” Marlow said. “But I don’t think that there’s any question that surveillance has adverse impacts on people’s sense of freedom and liberty. And freedom and liberty are very important in an academic environment.”
Several districts noted that their new camera systems would allow administrators to view school footage remotely — sometimes from cell phones or iPads.
Some privacy experts worry about the security of that footage, citing documented hacks of video cameras (including by actual students). Others worry about police access to surveillance systems.
“Law enforcement access should be limited to those emergencies where there is an imminent threat that can be articulated,” said Amelia Vance, Director of Education Privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum.
Many of the summaries did not specify who would have access to camera footage, but some explicitly stated that police would be looped in.
“Our local police departments have 24-7 access to all cameras in the district,” wrote administrators from the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Allegheny County.
(Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)
FILE PHOTO: Tamaqua parent Rebecca Kowalski, of Tamaqua, speaks during a question and answer session as members of the public, including parents and teachers, gathered Nov. 7, 2018, at Tamaqua Middle School to address a new Tamara Area School District policy that would authorize the training and arming of some teachers and staff.
A focus on mental health and trauma
Ninety applicants mentioned mental health, student trauma, or behavioral supports in their executive summaries.
Some districts eschewed technology upgrades altogether, and went all-in on more counseling and mental health services.
New Castle Area School District in Lawrence County said its $705,744 grant would help “prevent and mitigate the significant effects of trauma that have resulted from New Castle’s youth growing up in a state of chronic stress due to the impacts of living in severe poverty.”
The district pledged to provide school-based counseling services, staff training on “trauma-informed approaches in education,” and cover the cost of off-site counseling for families whose insurance doesn’t cover the services.
Stroudsburg Area School District in Monroe County said it would hire three social workers using the $530,001 it received from the state.
In other cases, districts mentioned mental health or student behavior among a laundry list of projects.
Big Beaver Falls Area School District in Beaver County said it would purchase surveillance equipment, “external door annunciators,” and “security-related technology,” alongside staff training in trauma-informed education and “behavior supports.”
Within the potpourri of requests, some other items came up regularly.
Just over ten percent of applicants said they’d use the money to hire school resource officers or school police.
Many others planned to purchase radio equipment that could be used to communicate in an emergency. One Bucks County district, Palisades, said it wanted to get two “radio towers” to improve communication — while others mentioned they would purchase frequencies from the FCC.
Midd-West School District in Snyder County put in for 48 portable radios, 59 school bus radios, and FCC licensing costs. Superintendent Rick Musselman said his staff worried that the cell towers in their rural community would jam in the event of a shooting. Radio communication was more reliable.
“You can’t hide behind, ‘It’ll never happen here,’ because we just don’t know where it will happen,” Musselman said.
There was also heavy investment in physical technology meant to thwart attackers. Districts bought bullet-proof glass, electronic locks, card-reader systems for doorways, and strobe lights — among many other technological bells and whistles.
Yoga, night-vision, and other outliers
And some purchases defied easy categorization, such as:
Seven license plate readers (West Allegeney School District)
Bullet proof vests and “active shooter” vests (North Hills School District)
Yoga training and “escape ladders” (Lake-Lehman School District)
“A 125 foot walkway” (Salisbury-Elk Lick School District)
-Backup generator (Fannett-Metal School District)
Rave Panic button software (Juniata County School District)
“Go-Bucket” trauma kits (Conrad Weiser Area School District)
Cameras equipped with “night vision” (Alternative Rehabilitation Communities, Inc.)
“Skyward Data Management Program for “complete academic and mental health documentation (Great Valley School District)
“Airlock sensors” for entrance doors (Upper Darby School District)
Emily Reddy / WPSU
Altoona Area High School Police Services Director Bill Pfeffer stands in front of the school’s banks of security cameras.
Digital eyes…but not many
There are all kinds of digital techniques at the vanguard of school surveillance — tools like facial-recognition software and services that monitor students’ social media for threats.
Few Pennsylvania school districts, however, mentioned these types of techniques in their grant applications.
It’s a relief to digital privacy expert Amelia Vance that most ideas were not far off the beaten path.
“It’s very much the type of request that I would have expected to see five or ten years ago,” said Vance. “And I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
There were a couple of cases where districts did mention — or hinted at — digital surveillance.
The Lenape Technical School in Armstrong County, for instance, said it would buy software to “monitor student computer use looking specifically for key words and logging incidents questionable in nature.”
Transformation in Rockwood
The diversity of what schools requested makes it hard to draw sweeping conclusions about how Pennsylvania schools used this new pot of state dollars.
The ACLU’s Chad Marlow described the requests as “spaghetti against the wall,” suggesting that districts were trying everything and anything to boost security.
Ken Trump, a national school security expert who has testified before Congress several times, said the requests seemed to favor hardware upgrades over staff training and behavioral remedies. He believes that’s a mistake, but a common one.
“Security cameras are not going to jump off the walls, interact with kids, assess and evaluate threats, provide services to kids, build relationships with kids,” Trump said.
Some school officials embrace the new security measures, arguing they help students feel safe in an era where anxiety abounds.
Others worry something has been lost in the “hardening” of schools, even if they feel compelled to participate.
The Rockwood Area School District in Somerset County is an interesting case study.
The tiny district of about 800 is in the kind of rural community where people keep their doors unlocked, said Superintendent Mark Bower.
That neighborly attitude used to prevail at the district’s lone school campus. Bower said his district was one of the last to lock its exterior doors.
About a decade ago, things started to change.
Now, all doors stay locked. Visitors enter through a secure vestibule where an attendant runs their ID through software linked to a sexual predator database. The attendant sits behind bullet-proof glass, “much like a bank teller,” Bower said. The district’s gone from no cameras to “over 125.”
With a $90,448 grant from the state, Rockwood Area is purchasing something called the “Rauland Full IP Critical Communications System.” Bower described it as a more advanced intercom that includes panic buttons in the office and “status lights” for each classroom. Teachers can control the color of those lights by hitting a button, and the idea is that teachers would be able to easily communicate if classrooms are safe or under siege during an attack.
Bower has overseen the district through all these upgrades, but he’s ambivalent about them.
“It’s really a heartbreaker to see what has changed in our society and in schools,” he said.
Still, he feels he has to adapt.
This spring the district received what it considered a credible threat and went into lockdown. Parents and staff expect the school to be ready for that kind of menace.
“At the same time it just changes the environment,” Bower said. “I can’t imagine growing up in the Cold War where you had to hide under your desk. And so I kinda liken it to that.”
This time, though, the response isn’t to a distant superpower, but instead a threat from within.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.