FILMING INSECURITIES: Outdated school campus cameras of little use

Cherry Creek outdated security cameras show a picture of a potential lapse in school safety. School officials hope school bond issue election passes to raise money for a fix

BY ADAM GOLDSTEIN, Staff Writer

AURORA | Bill Chavez scanned three monitors in the security office at Grandview High School, screens designed to keep tabs on about 2,700 students spread across the 346,000-square-foot campus.

Security Supervisor Billy Chavez looks over the working security cameras Oct. 9 at Grandview High School. The Cherry Creek School District’s $125 million bond issue on the November ballot would include about $2,700 for updates to security cameras at schools like Grandview High, where staff says the 14-year-old system is outdated and prone to constant failure. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Only one of the monitors was working properly, beaming fuzzy and indistinct images from more than 43 cameras set up in hallways, athletic rooms and parking lots. Four of those 43 cameras weren’t working. Another screen was frozen, stuck on a single error message after an unsuccessful attempt to review a specific tape. The third screen was dead.

Chavez, the school’s security supervisor for the past 13 years, said he’s gotten used to Grandview’s fickle and outdated security system. The analogue cameras are out of production, so repairs are a headache. The ones that do work convey grainy images, footage that’s tough to discern. Going over security tapes poses its own headaches.

“Say something happened in the parking lot. When you try to go back and review tape … it freezes up on you,” Chavez said. “The cameras have been here 14 years now. They were here when the school opened up, and they’ve never really been upgraded. Now they’re really starting to go out.”

The situation is similar at schools across the Cherry Creek School District. Outdated and out-of-production cameras are being replaced with parts from other outdated and out-of-production cameras. As enrollment swells at Grandview, Cherokee Trail and other Aurora high schools, camera systems from more than a decade ago are responsible for monitoring thousands and thousands of students. It’s a pressure that district officials are hoping to address in this fall’s bond issue election, a $125 million ballot question that includes about $2.7 million for hundreds of new cameras and digital, IP-based systems that feature clearer pictures and more readily available replacement parts.

“We have eliminated our capital reserve budget over the past three years to help balance the general budget. We’ve created this cycle that we need to get out of,” said Cherry Creek Assistant Superintendent Scott Siegfried, adding that the new system would give security staff more immediate access to footage. “It gives our security, police, first responders much more of an ability to pull up cameras at a moment’s notice. Right now, you wouldn’t be able to tell who the people are who are involved. With the upgraded system, you’re able to see more clearly.”

Comprehensive camera systems in schools became the norm in the wake of the Columbine shootings in 1999. In the years following the tragedy, Cherry Creek formalized a districtwide security protocol, one that included updated camera systems, a district care line and other measures.

“That’s really when we started to put cameras into place,” Siegfried said. “This is a critical part of it. It’s part of that puzzle that creates a safe school. It’s not the only thing, but it’s an important part of it … It’s security staff, it’s teachers in the hallways, it’s kids watching out for one another … It’s all of those pieces that come together. If one of them doesn’t exist, they all fall down.”

Along with the $125 million bond question, the district is asking voters to approve a $25 million mill levy issue. The two issues, which will appear as 3A and 3B on the ballot, are intertwined, officials say, and will both have important impacts on everything from curriculum to capacity. If the bond question doesn’t pass, the security systems will still be at the top of the district’s priority list. The challenge will be finding the $2.8 million to replace almost 1,000 cameras.

“It would be just like everything else. We’ll have a lot of budget cuts we’ll have to make,” Siegfried said, suggesting that cuts would possibly hit class size or teacher positions to find the money to fund the new security equipment.

Wherever the funding comes from, Chavez said the need is dire. In his years as security supervisor, the cameras have played a key role, allowing personnel to respond quickly to fights between students, incidents in the parking lots and other dust-ups at the school. He spoke as critical cameras positioned at the school’s front doors, its upper hallways and its back entrances were temporarily dark.

“There are thousands of kids roaming around (upstairs), and I only have one camera up there now,” Chavez said. “We don’t have anybody to buy us a new one.”

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at agoldstein@aurorasentinel.com or 720-449-9707

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