Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes is proposing deployment of a new $1.1 million “Mutualink” video system for Guilford County Schools that would allow law enforcement to view every hallway, cafeteria and common area at every county school.
The move is part of an “Emergency Interoperable Communications Project Plan” the Sheriff’s Department and other emergency responders want to see in place for county schools. It would allow law enforcement agencies to view a real-time video feed from any school in the event of an active shooter or other threat.
Mutualink would also enhance interagency communication between various first responder units, even if they use different networks. The system would also provide other protection such as panic buttons in select locations.
“It will cost a little over a million dollars to get cameras in every school,” Barnes said. “Then we could look and see where a shooter is.”
The school system already has some security cameras in limited areas, but this would provide a system-wide comprehensive video feed that could be streamed directly to first responders during a shooting – or tornado, chemical leak, fire, riot or major accident. It could also be of help if, say, a child is abducted.
Barnes said some sensitive school building areas, such as restrooms, of course would not be monitored.
Guilford County school officials have concerns about privacy, but Barnes said the Mutualink system would be an invaluable aid to his officers when trying to contain a shooter because it would give his department a God’s eye view of the activity at the school, with that video stream available to officers on handheld devices.
Barnes said that, in 2010, his department attempted to implement a somewhat similar system but that move was met with resistance from school officials. Since then, however, there’s been an alarming rise in the number of school shootings and many educators and others have changed their opinion on security cameras for that reason.
Last summer, the Guilford County Board of Education showed a willingness to increase the number of cameras in the county’s schools. The board voted 6 to 1 to fund new security cameras in schools as well as transition the system from film to digital video media.
Mutualink plans to tie some already existing school cameras into its new system and put new cameras in hallways and common areas where there aren’t any cameras.
Information in the presentation that will be given to the Guilford County commissioners includes statistics from the FBI that illustrate the increase in shootings at schools, malls and work places over the last two decades. It states that there’s a shooting of this type on average every three weeks and that, between 2000 and 2016, shooters killed 661 people and wounded 825 in school or workplace shootings. The FBI’s stats in the presentation only run through the end of 2016, so they don’t include newer mass shootings such as the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino shooting in Las Vegas last October or last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Barnes said he’s hoping school officials are more open to the idea now than they were eight years ago. He said that, at that time, school administrators opposed the idea even though his department had the funding lined up. He said Sheriff’s Department Col. Randy Powers took the lead on that effort and, through his work, the department was ready to move forward with the initiative.
“In 2010, I got grant money for cameras in schools that would have allowed us to pull up the hallways inside, and there was resistance to the idea,” Barnes said. “I got the money and we were good to go.”
He added that the schools fought the move.
“They said, ‘We don’t want it,’” Barnes said. “The reason given was that it was invading the privacy of the teachers and students.”
Some educators – like many employees in other walks of life – don’t like the prospect of cameras monitoring their movements throughout the day – but Barnes said that wouldn’t be the case with the Mutualink system. He said law enforcement would only have access to the video feeds at times when there was a threat.
“We would not have any access unless the schools relinquished it,” Barnes said.
This week, Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr said that, in 2010, school officials were reluctant to have cameras blanket school campuses.
“At that point in time that wasn’t something the system was embracing,” Carr said.
She said some of the concerns expressed in 2010 centered around student privacy and she added there may have also been technological issues that would have presented challenges as well. According to Carr, in 2010 the school system was focused instead on meeting many more basic needs such as making sure that the locks on doors and windows worked.
Carr said School Superintendent Sharon Contreras “certainly embraces technology” but added that there are other considerations at play as well.
Several county commissioners said this week they want to hear any and all ideas that might enhance school safety.
The schools and the county commissioners are in the middle of a major system-wide facilities study and Contreras and other school officials have said the study will provide a great deal of information as to what changes need to be made in order to improve security at area schools.
The Mutualink system being proposed would connect video feeds from 126 schools in the county system to the Sheriff’s Department, the Greensboro Police Department and the High Point Police Department and allow transfer of those feeds to one or more of those agencies.
In addition to the $1.1 million in implementation costs, there would be an annual fee of $248,000, starting with the second year of the system’s operation, to keep it up and running. That fee would cover the lease of the equipment, maintenance and replacement of equipment when needed. That cost comes to about $2100 a year per school.
At the school board meeting last June, when the board approved an expanded security camera program, one parent told the board that the schools shouldn’t install more security cameras.
“Cameras are perceived to staff and students as being intrusive and creating an environment of distrust, which may create problems instead of preventing them,” she told the board.