SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 23, 2014

New cameras monitor Peabody High

Video surveillance streamed to police, school personnel

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — PEABODY — They say the real measure of a person is what they do when no one is watching.

Those moments are likely to be far fewer for students at Peabody High School, where a new security system is sending 30 separate camera feeds to school personnel. The images are now being shared with Peabody Police, as well.

The stepped-up video surveillance comes after police in Danvers used their high school camera system to apprehend the suspect in the murder of teacher Colleen Ritzer in October. Although police believe Ritzer was attacked in a restroom, where there was no surveillance, cameras in the hall recorded the suspect following her into the restroom and later rolling a recycling barrel into and then out of it. Police believe the barrel was used to transport her body outside.

Among the sites under the cameras’ eyes in Peabody are entrances and exits, hallways, the cafeteria and the gym. Definitely not being observed, “as a matter of personal privacy,” are bathrooms, locker rooms and teachers’ lounges, according to Deputy police Chief Marty Cohan. While the images are patched in to police and arrayed on a 52-inch monitor, no officer is assigned to watch them. Cohan sees the images as useful after an incident has happened or during an emergency.

For example, they could be used to monitor an ongoing situation within the schools, he said, citing school shootings in other areas of the country.

”God forbid, if something happened that required a police response,” he said. “We’re using it as a form of intelligence.”

The knowledge that the cameras are there can also act as a deterrent to bad behavior, he added.

It’s a system so sophisticated that the high school’s resource officer, Manny Costa, as well as school officials, can access the images on their cellphones in real time.

Cohan said password-protected security arrangements are adequate to prevent any outsider from accessing the images. He downplayed the likelihood that the cameras could be abused.

“It’s not Big Brother,” Cohan said.

Federal funds financed the new system. Superintendent Joe Mastrocola expects that a state-of-the-art surveillance system also will be installed at the new Higgins Middle School.

At the same time, he discourages the notion that this is simply a reaction to the murder in Danvers or events like the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

“We’d do it anyway,” Mastrocola said. “Safety’s paramount. ... What we want is a clean and safe environment for the kids.”

Discussions over security issues are ongoing with the state and will impact security decisions for the new middle school, he said.

Veteran school board member Dave McGeney expressed some ambivalence regarding the cameras, saying that while he applauds the increased security, it comes at the cost of privacy.

“I’ve got some questions about it,” he said. “But anything that helps security, I’m in favor of it. ... I just want to know more of the details of the implementation. ... Who does the information get shared with? How long is it stored? Who’s evaluating it? ...

“I’m sure there are good answers to these questions, because there are thoughtful people behind this.”

Mastrocola said the information is being shared only with police and evaluated by officers and school personnel.

Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.