A new partnership between Bonneville Joint School District 93 and the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office will keep the district’s camera system at the cutting edge of school security.
District 93 is used to trying new security systems. In 2014, Sandcreek Middle School received national recognition as the test case for a gunshot sensor system that would send alerts and activate nearby cameras when they heard a gun fire. The system worked in several tests over the years, but the alert went to the company that installed the sensors instead of emergency dispatchers and there are plenty of other attacks that the system could miss.
“What if you have somebody that has a knife or don’t make a noise that triggered the sensors?” Bonneville County commissioner Roger Christensen said in a phone interview last month. “We need to get eyes on the outside of the building until law enforcement shows up.”
The district’s new camera system cuts out that middleman and speeds up response time. Nearly 1,800 cameras throughout the district are being fed directly into the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office dispatch, where they can be pulled up in under a minute and offer live surveillance information to the responding officers. A demonstration of the system in early November was attended by Christensen as well as school officials, Ammon city representatives and multiple law enforcement agencies.
In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida in February, other districts around the country have started working on similar camera systems. A school district in Missouri provides remote access to law enforcement during emergencies and another outside Detroit has begun connecting its cameras to the county’s COMTEC center for emergencies.
District 93’s system would be unique, though, in the sheer number of cameras and the low cost for the project. One of the initial appeals of the camera system when it was first pitched to the school board in July was how little it would cost to connect the thousands of cameras to the dispatch center.
“We said, let’s put together a (memo of understanding) between us and, at no extra cost because the infrastructure is already in place, we could have camera access at the 911 center for all the schools here,” said Gordon Howard, director of the district’s Safe Schools program.
The school district had the cameras in the buildings and a system connecting them for years. Ammon’s fiber network has been steadily expanding throughout the city and the dispatch station wouldn’t need any new equipment to handle the footage. After the College of Eastern Idaho agreed to serve as the hub connecting the city’s fiber with the dispatch center across the Snake River, there were no other major changes required to make the technology work.
While the technology supporting the cameras is in place, there are still details that need addressed to make the system fully functional. A meeting Wednesday will sort out the protocols for how the system will be used — what can trigger the dispatch to pull up the cameras and what exactly the deputies can do once they begin using the system. Bonneville County Sheriff Paul Wilde said that the dispatch would be too busy to constantly monitor the cameras, even if the schools allowed them to do so.
“There’s no way to keep track of all the cameras at one school, let alone every school in the district,” Wilde said.
Sandcreek Middle School has 56 cameras installed to monitor the hallways and exterior of the building and officials have continued to add more as they find new blind spots. Principal Yvonne Thurber said the only classroom with a camera installed is the one where students with behavioral issues are taught.
“Sometimes they can have violent tendencies or an altercation with the teacher. We want to make sure that everybody is protected,” Thurber said.
Thurber says the school already uses the cameras regularly. She and her assistant principal have large TV screens in their office where they can pull up any footage they need to ensure the school stays orderly. The footage can help them investigate the everyday chaos of the school, from stolen backpacks to accusations of bullying.
“If a kid comes in and reports that another kid pushed him or shoved or harassed him by his locker, we can pretty much pin down what happened and who was involved,” Thurber said.
The cameras already have been viewed by 911 responders at Sandcreek, but never for a security emergency. School nurses and paramedics have reviewed the footage to see what happened in select medical incidents, such as a seizure in the hallways or a woman who slipped on the ice outside the school last year. Thurber said the cameras and gunshot sensors have not been used by law enforcement outside of demonstrations and tests.
All parties involved recognize the potential risk of letting strangers view students at school, even if those strangers work for the sheriff’s office. Every school in D93 used to have access to every other camera in the district but that has since been limited so school officials can only see their own buildings. The footage is saved for up to five weeks on the district’s computers but dispatch will only be able to see the live footage.
Other protocols will be discussed at the Wednesday meeting, including the kinds of events that would allow dispatch to pull up the camera feeds. Both the district and the sheriff’s office hope the system will be used for more than the unlikely worst-case scenario of a school shooting but the specifics of those other uses still need to be nailed down.
“We need to have a standard protocol for how this will work so it will be the same for everyone,” Howard said.
He gave the example of vandalism being reported at night by a high school and law enforcement having access to the exterior footage as a possible example of other uses for the school security cameras. It’s also been suggested that the cameras could be used to investigate crimes near the school but not directly affecting the students yet, such as nearby burglaries.
“If we decide those external cameras can be of assistance, then why not use it for that? But it has to be determined by the protocols,” Wilde said.
The system could end up expanding to the rest of the schools in the city. Idaho Falls School District 91 officials plan to hold a meeting later this month with the Idaho Falls Police Department to discuss the possibility of creating their own version of the camera system. The county dispatch center also services calls for the city police department and two of its officers attended the demonstration unveiling the system in November.
Officials from the sheriff’s office and D93 have said they will make an official announcement on the system after the security protocols are finalized at Wednesday’s meeting, but the major parts of the system are established and it could come online at any time.
“Everything is in place and I think it will be great,” Christensen said.