Scott Travis Reporter South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The next time you step onto a Broward County school campus, the video camera may not only watch you, but remember you.

The Broward County School District plans to install a $621,000 surveillance system that includes facial-recognition technology. The technology can be used to check each face against a database of expelled students, sex offenders, felons and other potential troublemakers.

“These cameras’ artificial intelligence recognizes the movements and characteristics of people and vehicles, bringing actionable activity to the attention of those monitoring the cameras,” the district and Broward County government wrote in an application for a federal grant.

The cameras are planned for 36 schools, mostly high schools “with the highest security needs,” according to a project description. Although the names of schools aren’t listed, one is expected to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where a former student shot 34 people on Feb. 14, leaving 17 of them dead.

Beefing up security

The school district has been looking for ways to enhance security since the massacre. A few school districts across the country already have started using this technology, including Fulton County, Ga., and Lockport, N.Y.

Experts say they don’t know of any other schools in Florida using it.

The U.S. Department of Justice has approved a $466,000 grant for the camera system, with Broward schools paying for the remaining $155,000. The grant also requires the approval of the Broward County Commission, which plans to consider it at a meeting on Tuesday. The School Board will vote on it at an upcoming meeting.

“This will be essential in helping to improve our security measures, to track who belongs and quickly alerting who does not belong on campus,” said Broward School Board member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed at Stoneman Douglas.

The school district said the decision to pursue the technology came after discussions with a security consulting firm it hired as well as discussions from the state’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which reviewed what went wrong during the tragedy and has made recommendations to improve school safety.

A report released last week doesn’t mention facial-recognition technology although it does recommend school districts invest in better surveillance equipment.

The district has already made some major upgrades. Broward used to have systems that only each individual school could monitor, but the district completed a project in June that connects camera systems at all schools and allows them to be monitored remotely.

‘Many unanswered questions’

The newest surveillance plan has raised alarms for some researchers and civil liberties advocates.

Research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University found that facial-recognition technology misidentifies women and racial minorities at high rates. It also could lead to police interrogating people who may eat lunch or speak in the hallway to an accused criminal, said Michelle Morton, juvenile justice policy coordinator for the Florida office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“There are so many unanswered questions when technology outpaces the law,” Morton said. “Schools have been focusing on hardening, but school climate is a much higher indicator of school violence.

“Kids who don’t feel safe and respected are more likely to act out and get in trouble and less likely to go to adults with information.”

Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, told The Associated Press in August that any school considering facial recognition must consider who will have access to data, how such a system would be managed and whether students can opt out.

Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland based school security consultant, said the “devil is in the details” when it comes to whether he thinks schools should use it.

“What data — faces, cars, license plates, etc. — get put into the system for the camera to pull up if it detects an individual, car, or other image? What is the criteria for entering such information? Is it objective or subjective criteria? Who decides? How long will it be retained in the database? When will it be deleted from the system? Is there a board policy set on all of this and upon what current case law is it based?” he asked.

He also questions whose job it will be to monitor the system and whether it will be a full-time job or one of many duties.

“If the details of implementation are not well thought out on the front-end, school leaders risk finding themselves with little more than ‘security theater’ rather than useful tools that will be a meaningful part of a broader comprehensive school safety program,” Trump said.

A school district spokeswoman said Friday that no one was available to answer detailed questions about the plans.

Max Schachter, whose son Alex was killed at Stoneman Douglas, said he likes the idea of the technology. But he questioned why the district is doing this before completing more urgent priorities, such as policies on emergency lockdown procedures, safe spaces for students to hide and active shooter training for school security monitors.

He said right now, the district doesn’t even have an agreement that allows law enforcement to review the camera footage.

“Most of the time cameras are just forensics unless you have a very advanced school security system and have the staff to be able to take advantage of the camera’s capabilities,” Schachter said.

Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.