CMS $19M safety plan includes cameras, other upgrades

Jeremy Batchelor became principal of James Martin Middle School in December 2012, just three days after a gunman killed 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

So he was understandably eager when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools offered to add security cameras and a buzz-in entry system to the northeast Charlotte school.

Martin Middle School was a pioneer. In March 2013, CMS and Mecklenburg County commissioners approved $19 million to boost school safety across the county.

A year later that work is drawing to a close, with the final contracts for security cameras awarded last week. While the Sandy Hook tragedy accelerated the action, Batchelor and CMS officials agree that the big payoff comes from the incidents that schools deal with on a regular basis: Fights, theft, vandalism, medical emergencies and visitors who may not belong on campus.

“They’re definitely helping,” Batchelor said of security cameras that let his staff keep an eye on where students are congregating and what they’re doing. “We have kind of turned a corner here at Martin.”

Most CMS elementary and middle schools will get their cameras installed between now and the start of school Aug. 25. High schools already had cameras.

“They’re going to be working straight through until it’s done,” said CMS police Chief Randy Hagler.

Caught on camera

The cameras, which feed images to school offices and CMS police, make it harder to get by with starting a fight, sneaking off campus, swiping a cellphone or committing vandalism.

Not long ago, Hagler said, a man broke into the old Spaugh Middle School on a Sunday morning, taking the leash off his dog and using it to hold a door open. When an alarm went off, the man left the building without taking anything, put his dog back on the leash and stood outside to watch the action.

“He was shopping,” Hagler said. What the man didn’t realize was that dispatchers had seen the whole thing. Despite his protests that he had just wandered by, Hagler said, the man was quickly arrested.

Batchelor said he and his staff watch video to monitor where kids are hanging out and make sure those areas are supervised. When a fight or a locker break-in happens, video helps the investigation.

Other improvements include panic buttons, upgraded phones, entry systems that let office staff screen visitors and sign-in systems that scan driver’s licenses and do an instant criminal record check.

Change in culture

A school visitor will likely be asked to state his name and business – and possibly be asked to hold an ID up to the door camera – before being buzzed in. In the office, LobbyGuard scanners create a name tag while searching databases to see whether the visitor is registered as a sex offender or has a violent record.

CMS gets 200 or more “hits” a day, Hagler said, partly because many people type their names in rather than scanning their license. Most are false alarms caused by similar names and are quickly cleared up, he said. About 10 visitors have been identified as sex offenders, he said, and not all of those were considered dangerous.

Batchelor said whenever the system flags someone as a possible risk, he and his campus police officer are instantly notified.

“Automatically I start kind of looking around,” he said. Most often, he said, a message quickly follows that the visitor has been cleared.

This summer, CMS also plans to install technology that will allow emergency responders to communicate by radio inside schools. Many of the large schools are notorious for having dead zones, Hagler said: “That was one of the critical pieces that all the police chiefs were pushing for.”

Early last year there was talk about fencing in sprawling school campuses that potentially provide lots of entry points for intruders. That plan was dropped because of high cost and concerns about appearance and safety. The risk of having students fenced in during a fire or attack outweighed the benefit of keeping intruders out, officials decided.

Instead, schools have focused on low-tech protections to supplement the cameras and monitors. Schools have gotten stricter about locking outside doors during class time, and all employees and students are required to display ID badges.

“It’s almost like a culture change,” Hagler said.

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